Face of Defense: Sergeant Defies Odds to Pursue Dream
By Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrea Thacker
MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga., March 7, 2011 When many people hear the odds are against them, they simply give up. But Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Disney does just the opposite and says, "Challenge accepted."
Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Disney plays his guitar at his home, Feb. 24, 2011. A pararescue jumper, Disney began performing at local venues during his first assignment to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., from 1998 to 2004. He is the 347th Rescue Group standards and evaluations superintendent. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Nearly 14 years ago, when Disney told an Air Force recruiter he had dreams of becoming a cross between a doctor and a Navy SEAL, the recruiter sent him to the back of the office to a stack of dusty pararescue pamphlets.
“He said, ‘I think I have exactly what you're looking for, but don't get your hopes up, kid. No one I've sent has made the cut, and you probably won't, either,’” Disney recalled.
"That's all I needed to hear and I was hooked," Disney added. "Once I dusted off that flyer and saw a dark-haired, handsome-looking, Italian guy in a maroon beret on the cover, I read through it. I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. I didn't stop talking about it all summer until I left for basic training."
Of the 86 students in his course, only six had what it took to graduate as a pararescue jumper: Disney was one of the six. That was the first of many challenges he has met.
"I walked into the 38th Rescue Squadron, brand new, two stripes on my arm, and this big, tall, muscular guy walked in, and I recognized him immediately as being the guy from the pamphlet," Disney said. "He said to me in a New York accent, 'Is that Bobby Disney? I hear you're a real goofy guy,' and kind of chuckled to himself for his Disney joke. That's how I met Mike [Maltz]. He was the best."
That was Disney's first encounter with the man who eventually would become his mentor and affect his career in more ways than one.
Disney is the 347th Rescue Group's standards and evaluations superintendent, but he’s also known in the rescue community here as the "Black Cloud," a nickname he got from fellow PJs after what he called the "series of the unfortunate three" incidents.
Rewind to August 2002. In the mountains of Afghanistan, then-staff sergeant Disney was on his second real-world rescue, a mission to pick up two men who had been involved in a firefight and transport them to a tiny post in the middle of nowhere. Since they were at such a high altitude, Disney said, the helicopter had to do a marginal power takeoff. But the crew was asking for more than the helicopter’s engines could handle, as the craft couldn’t gain enough altitude or airspeed to avoid a "brownout" -- decreased visibility resulting from a dust cloud. Disney recalled that he was sitting in the left-side door and began to see the ground racing toward them.
"It felt like we were coming down, and fast," he said, "so I determined it'd be best if I wasn't sitting in the doorway if we did impact the ground. I moved inside the helicopter, then I heard the left gunner yelling 'Stop left, stop left!' About that time, I felt a really hard impact.
"Somehow, I don't know how, … I wasn't in that door when it slammed shut. Angels on my shoulder, right?" he added, referring to the pararescue patch, which features an angel that signifies the help PJs provide from above.
"The rotors were chewing into the ground, and there were no blades on it anymore," Disney said. "The engines [were on] full power, and it was just getting louder and louder, higher-pitched and higher-pitched, and I'm just laying there with everything on me, and it's very, very calm [and] serene. It wasn't a struggle to get out. There wasn't anything I could do. It was just laying there until all the violent motion stopped. Knowing what might have been coming was the worst part."
Finally, the pilots shut down the engines, and Disney said he recalls everything going deathly quiet until the helicopter's team leader snapped everyone back to reality by yelling out, "Sound off by crew position." Once the crew sounded off, the team lead yelled "Get out."
Disney said he thought he'd already survived the worst, and he re-enlisted seven days later. Six weeks later, on a different aircraft and in a different country, Disney witnessed an event that rocked him to the core.
"We starting hearing radio chatter of a boy and girl who fell down a hill," he said. "We started referring to this rescue as ‘Jack and Jill.’ In a C-130 Hercules, we launched out of Uzbekistan, and two helicopters launched out Afghanistan. It was one of the darkest nights I've ever seen through night vision goggles -- dark as can be. … [We] could barely see the ground. We refueled both helicopters by colored light signals because of how dark it was."
As he watched through the C-130’s side window, Disney said, he could see the ground through his night-vision goggles, then he would lose it again as if the aircraft was punching in and out of clouds, even 400 feet above the ground. Then, he said, he felt a familiar tug when the second helicopter disconnected from the refueling hose.
"Not five seconds later, I saw a bright flash of light that flooded out my [night-vision goggles]," he said. "Then, all I heard was a blood-curdling screaming coming from the loadmaster. It looked like an explosion. It lit up the whole countryside. I thought someone had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, and we were next. Then I heard, 'Helicopter crash, 7 o'clock.'"
The wheels in the veteran PJ's head began turning. Knowing they were at 400 feet and were configured to jump, Disney said, he was ready. The combat rescue officer aboard the C-130 made the decision not to jump until they knew more, because the second helicopter’s crew already had found three of the six crash victims.
Because the area was unknown and hostile, the crew was recalled to home base, and Disney had to leave the crash site against his will.
"When I got back on the ground, I got the word on the guys who were on the bird," Disney said. "One of them was Mike Maltz. I can't tell you how I will always feel about that night. I mean, the Airmen's Creed says 'I will never leave airman behind,’ … and we had to leave guys behind on the ground that night. Everything in me wishes I could have jumped in, [that] I could have done something.
"It was like losing a father -- losing a mentor and losing a friend all at the same time," a choked-up Disney continued. "It was one of the hardest moments. It was hard."
A few months after losing the iconic figure who graced the cover of his recruiting pamphlet, Disney was back in the mix. He was about to stumble upon the last event in “the unfortunate three.”
"It was April 18, Good Friday," Disney said. "I know the date, because I had been practicing to play my guitar at the Easter Sunday service. We were going on a training mission or exercise. It was about a 45-minute flight to get where we were going. When the pilots said, ‘It's out there,’ I looked out and saw what looked like people."
By the time they were committed to land, the people were gone, Disney said. Then he heard two sounds, the second confirming they were taking gunfire from at least four people.
"I racked my weapon,” he said. “As I moved to sit down, I brought my weapon up, and I can see flashes now coming out the back now, and [with] one of those flashes there was a weird disturbance of air. "Then came a sensation of two things at the same time. It was like someone swung a baseball bat in my face and the other was a shockwave that rippled through my whole body."
Defending the helicopter and killing the people who were shooting at them was his only thought at the time, Disney said.
"I looked over at the guy across from me and yelled 'I'm shot! I'm hit!' and then I moved into a position to return fire. He yells, 'Shoot back, shoot back, shoot back,'" Disney said.
Within seconds of the helicopter touching down, three people were wounded. Through the barrage of gunfire and with a gunshot wound to right side of his cheek, Disney returned fire. By the time the crew left the scene, only 30 seconds had passed since initial contact. All the crew members survived and returned to base to seek medical care.
When he returned to Moody Air Force Base after his deployment, the Purple Heart recipient said, he could focus on getting back to normal and performing with his guitar in clubs around Valdosta. Two years later, the only thing that was missing in his life was a little romance, Disney said. He met a local girl named Tess, and they soon fell in love, he added, but the Air Force had other plans, sending the master sergeant to the Royal Air Force base at Mildenhall, England.
Knowing that Tess was the one, Disney said, he proposed.
"I asked Tess to marry me on Christmas Day over the phone," he said. "I sent her a ring in the mail. The company sent her both of the rings at the same time, and she opened the wedding band first and was like 'Awww.'"
Tess Disney laughed and said, "It was messed up," as she continued the story. "This is a wedding band, this isn't an engagement ring. … I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that's for later on."
Now nearly six years later and back at Moody, the Disneys are living happily with two horses and three dogs.
Tess said she has learned to live with her husband's many deployments and knowing that his nickname is Black Cloud. "I'm a strong wife and I have strong faith,” she said. “Worrying isn't going to help anything.”
She tells people with a laugh that she imagines Robert is off staying at a resort. "I know he has someone watching out for him,” she said. “He's been through all that already. He's here for a reason."
After all that has happened in his life, Disney still has one ongoing challenge to face, and that is living up to his name, he said.
"Someone I looked up to once said to me, "When people meet you, you're either going to be one of two things," Disney said. "You're either going to be a big disappointment -- a dirtbag who got shot in the face -- or you're actually going to be ‘that guy,’ the one people can look up to."
These words changed his life, Disney said. Since then, he added, he hasn't stopped saying, "Challenge accepted."