129 RQW Airmen translate during international rescue

SAN DIEGO -- Senior Airman Yaohui Chen serves the CNG's 129th Rescue Wing as a military pay technician, which means his job "is usually in a seat at a desk." But sometimes when duty calls, it takes an Airman to places he is not accustomed to.

"I received the call from my superintendent on Saturday morning, March 10, while taking my older daughter to her gymnastics class, and shortly after receiving the call I reported for duty," Chen recalled.

Soon Chen and Staff Sgt. Hong Zhou -- a supply craftsman for the Wing -- found themselves aboard one of the wing's MC-130P Combat Shadow planes on their way to meet a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles off the coast of Mexico. Two men aboard Fu Yuan Yu #871 had been badly burned in a fire, and the U.S. Coast Guard had requested that 129th pararescue jumpers, or PJs, meet the boat to provide medical treatment and transport the patients to shore.

"I had never had the chance to join a rescue mission, and seeing the mission in front of me was a very special memory I will remember and will be telling my grandkids when I get old," Zhou said.

Zhou and Chen had passed the Defense Language Profieciency Test, so the Wing was able to find them in its computer system when searching for Airmen who could speak Mandarin and Cantonese.

Zhou, who was born and lived in China for 18 years, speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. She joined the National Guard five years ago after serving in the active duty Air Force for 4 years. Chen lived in China until he was 14, when his family moved to Mexico. He joined the Wing in November 2007.

"The rescue mission was exciting, fun and challenging at the same time," Chen said. He communicated to the fishing boat captain that he needed to turn his boat against the wind and set it at a certain speed to enable an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from the 129th to hoist the patients aboard. "It was my first time operating a military radio, the captain was yelling, and depending on which part of China, the national language Mandarin is spoken with a different type of accent, so it was confusing at first," he said.

Zhou remained on the Combat Shadow and translated the crew's requests, such as telling the boat to stop and informing the boat captain that PJs were going to jump into the ocean, board the boat and lift the patients onto a hoist. She continued to interpret until the patients were transferred to a burn center in San Diego.

"I helped with translating what the PJs requested and explained to the patients where they were, what we planned on doing, where they were being transported to and relayed their physical needs such as needing to be turned, food, water and pain management," she said.

Both Zhou and Chen enjoyed the experience and said they hope to serve as interpreters again.

"I did not ever imagine myself being a part of a rescue mission," Chen said, "but I feel good knowing I was able to help the PJs complete the mission, and I would volunteer if there is ever another opportunity like this."