By Tech Sgt. Kelly Goonan.
(Editors Note: This article is about the retirement of a long-serving pararescueman, but also describes the training and career of a typical member of the USAF pararescuemen.)
Air Force PJs are the only DoD elite combat forces specifically organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct full spectrum dedicated Personnel Recovery (PR) to include both conventional and unconventional combat rescue operations. These Battlefield Airmen are the most highly trained and versatile PR specialists in the world.
After 33-years, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Ziegler, 308th Rescue Squadron career PJ, concluded his monumental career with a retirement ceremony on May 2, 2020 at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. The ceremony was specially tailored to accommodate social distancing measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of the masses of friends, co-workers and family that would’ve been surrounding him, the majority of those lives he’d touched had to watch the event from a screen where the it was being broadcast in real-time using Facebook’s Live-Stream technology.
The Chief could see his daughter and son-in-law in real time but only through a computer screen. The only family able to attend was his loving wife, who beamed with immense pride throughout the entire event. Scattered throughout the room were only a small fraction of Airmen who were given special permission to attend.
Lt. Col. Timothy, 308th RQS commander, presided over the ceremony and explained how in 1987 Ziegler raised his hand, wanting to serve his nation. Not really knowing what he wanted to do but he felt he needed to do and wanted to do something special.
For most Air Force enlisted personnel, the rough part is over after basic training ends. For a PJ, the end of basic training means their physical and mental toughness training is just beginning. The next phase of training for prospective Pararescuemen is what’s known to PJ’s as “The Pipeline.” The PJ pipeline candidate will undergo extensive physical training during a 12-week period of an indoctrination course to prepare them for the demands of the PJ career field.
In 1987, roughly 8,000 Airmen tried out to become a Pararescueman. Out of those 8,000, only 300 made it past the PAST test. Out of those 300, only 82 completed all the required training in order to earn their coveted maroon beret. Meaning after that full year cycle, only 82 PJ’s were produced. Ziegler was one of those 82.
“For anyone who has ever gone through the pipeline, that’s where you first start to learn that personal desires and comforts go to the waste side,” the 308th commander said. “You learn what it takes to become something bigger than yourself and living for your team. Everyone in the 308th understands that but Chief Ziegler has lived and breathed it for 33 years. This is a great example of living in our core values of service before self.”
The commander remarked that Ziegler is considered a thousand-pound gorilla in the pararescue community.
“In this career field, it’s really six degrees of separation from Mike Ziegler,” he said. “You cannot name a technique, tactic and procedure, a piece of equipment, a location or an operation that is not within six degrees of Mike’s influence, whether direct or indirect, that’s how powerful Chief Z is in this world.”
When Ziegler took the podium, he thanked every member of his unit and his family for the unwavering support they gave to him throughout the last three decades.
“For the past 33-years I have had an amazing life,” Ziegler said. “I have had such a phenomenal time. You learn from your past, grow from your mistakes and you live in the now but you’re always thinking ahead. You got to.”
Ziegler went on to recall that his career has brought him many opportunities to do an array of things such as scuba diving in the Red Sea where Moses is said to have parted and crossed. He’s climbed the top of the Great Pyramids in Egypt. He’s flown around the top of Mount Ararat in a helicopter where Noah’s Ark is said to have settled while he was on his way to an earthquake torn city in Turkey. He’s been to the Muslim’s holiest city of Mecca.
“I’ve walked through the giant boulders in Stonehenge, hiked through the ruins of Scandinavia of the Vikings,” Ziegler explained. “I’ve traveled all through Europe, across North Africa and very much into the Middle East. There is so much more that I am grateful for to have had this opportunity and experience.”
Recalling one of his most beloved and trusted mentors, his high school wrestling coach, Ziegler told the story of how a single moment from years ago opened his eyes to the reality of life.
“One day at wrestling practice, I was face down on the mat feeling defeated,” he said. “Coach sprawled down right next to me and got in my face and said ‘while you’re lying here like a fish and feeling sorry for yourself, you aren’t accomplishing anything. Now you better figure it out son, you better get moving.’ That was the first time I’d realized it was up to me to make a change.”
Ziegler remarked how in his early years of being a PJ he had hoped to be a part of every mission he could possibly get his hands on. He would be sent all over Europe and Africa with several special forces teams, training and working alongside coalition partners and participating in large exercises.
When the Gulf War kicked off, Ziegler was assigned to an Army Special Forces team. He’d find himself flying and working around the mountains of Northern Iraq, Turkey and some parts in Syria. At that time, he and the team had been together for a couple years working mission after mission, living with the Kurds, developing new concepts.
“I remember coming out of the field, completely exhausted,” he explained. “My uniform was bleached out, I had long hair, I was sunburned and weathered.”
Ziegler explained that they had just experienced the worst of humanity from an Iraqi dictator and we were able to make a difference by getting people taken care of and back to their cities in Northern Iraq.
“I struggled every day during that time period,” he said. “I was a small piece to that but I am very proud of what we accomplished while there.”
Years later, in the aftermath of 9/11 Ziegler would find himself deploying constantly. Leaving his family time and time again for years. He said it was brutal but ultimately, he loved every second of it. For years, he remarked, he had grown personally and professionally running those hills in Afghanistan where he says he learned that it takes every single person to make the mission happen.
“That’s why I say we are only as good as the people who we are surrounded by,” he said. “I’ve got nothing in common with lazy people. Nothing in common with those who blame others for their shortcomings.”
Ziegler went on to say that you’ve got to surround yourself with good people to make you better. The kind of people he had been surrounded by within his unit at 308th RQS.
“Thank you for having an open mind and working hard,” he said. “I’ve given you everything I have. It has been an honor and privilege to have been your Chief,” he said.
During the ceremony, Ziegler was awarded the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal for his heroic actions during his last deployment that began in 2019 and ended in early 2020, and several gifts honoring his commitment and service to the nation.
Story: This article is a repost of “Monumental PJ Honored at Ceremony”, by Tech. Sgt. Kelly Goonan, 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs, published on May 6, 2020.
Photo: Chief Master Sgt. Michael Ziegler, 308th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, makes his final remarks to the audience of Airmen during his retirement ceremony on May 2, 2020 at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kelly Goonan)