The story behind the return of Inside Combat Rescue, and what its subjects think about it

After two weeks of following an elite unit of the U.S. Air Force at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan last summer, National Geographic producers and executives realized that a second season of Inside Combat Rescue was unlikely, and considered ending production.

That’s because there were few rescues–good news for military personnel and people in Afghanistan, but not good for the creation of another six episodes highlighting dramatic transport of wounded people by the Air Force’s pararescue jumpers, or PJs. According to Noel Siegel, NatGeo’s senior vice president of production and development, “Our production team was actually telling us, ‘At this point we probably think it would probably be better to shut down.’ That’s when this incident happened.”

The incident was an attack on the base that killed four people, and the seven documentary film crew members sent to Afghanistan shifted their focus. They ended up following another Air Force unit–the 822nd Base Defense Squadron, known as Reaper Team 5–as it searched for the man responsible for the attack even as they were preparing to return to the United States.

The footage from that manhunt has become Inside Combat Rescue: The Last Stand, a harrowing and humanizing two hours (it debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. ET; watch the first few minutes) though it’s near-singular focus makes it very different from the exceptional first season (which re-airs in its entirety Sunday starting at 3 p.m. ET).

Once again, National Geographic Television’s cameras and crews place viewers in the action, including via POV cameras that the airmen wear on their shoulders while walking through an Afghan village. The access results in drama, tension, and emotion that, while it can’t possibly match what the men and women experienced in those moments, illustrates the reality of their mission, their jobs, their lives–with the aid of sometimes overly heavy-handed narration and dramatic music.

How well does it capture their experience? I talked to some of the people featured in the series and film before its world premiere Wednesday at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia, where the Reapers and PJs are based, as part of a visit for press coordinated and sponsored by the National Geographic Channel. Before those conversations, the Air Force offered us the chance to experience several training exercises:

  • Walking a dirt path and trying to locate pretend IEDs (“presence of the abnormal, absence of the normal,” as one sergeant told us) that triggered only sirens.
  • Being attacked and bitten through a heavily padded dog-bite coat by a trained military dog.
  • Riding along in a heavily armored vehicle as it drove through a mock Afghan village and came under attack (and attacked back, shooting 50 caliber blanks).
  • Trying to escape an armored vehicle that was flipped upside so the passengers dangled upside down from over-the-shoulder seat belts, blood and pressure rushing to our heads.

Those were sobering experiences, but of course, they were just training exercises: safe, predictable. While those exercises offered a controlled experience, they still gave me an increased appreciation for what the men and women of the armed forces deal with, in the same way that Inside Combat Rescue does for viewers.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Crotty, who’s featured in the film and was in Afghanistan for seven months, told me that when he first learned crews would follow his unit, he was “skeptical” because “it’s kinda weird to go out there and do a mission and have somebody watching your every move,” but ultimately “it was pretty cool.” He also said “leadership really reinforced that it was going to be a good opportunity for us.”

That was echoed by Captain Eric Hansen, a member of the 38th Rescue Squadron who was featured predominantly in season one. “Honestly, we did not want it; from a leadership perspective, we said we were not interested,” Hansen said. “We knew what the mission was over there; we didn’t want cameras in our face all the time.” But he also said, “We got told it would be good for ourselves and for the Air Force, and get on board.”

He was particularly “worried about … trying to protect our guys from being bothered during that downtime when they could Skype with their families or whatever.” But his fears were alleviated because “the guys that NatGeo sent out … they were extremely respectful of our time and our space,” agreeing not to film when asked.

Like other reality TV subjects, in addition to being followed by cameras (including a GoPro strapped to his uniform and others mounted in vehicles), Crotty was subject to on-the-fly interviews and scheduled, two-hour interviews in their rooms or elsewhere during their downtime. He called the result “weird” and “surreal,” and told me that family members called and told him, “I was just watching that tuna show on NatGeo and all the sudden a commercial comes on I see your face on there.”

Although he said the final film “highlights what we did down there,” he added that, “with no discredit to NatGeo, you’ll never be able to capture the full realism of what it’s like.” He also pointed out that the series’ limited focus means viewers might not be aware of how many other people do the same job, and how many others contributed to the mission: “There was a lot of teams that did that,” Crotty said. “It’s something that we did as a team.

Hansen said that the show even taught him something about the people he worked with. “I care deeply for those guys. From a personal perspective, I liked seeing the show because I got to get a new perspective on those guys and see how they reacted to what was going on over there,” Hansen told me.

Other members of the Air Force, including those who work at Moody Air Force base, also learned from what they saw on TV. “After the show, there’s plenty of people on base who came to talk to me, who basically said they’d been here for years, supporting our mission … and they had no idea this is the mission that I’m supporting,” Hansen said. “I think the show was a good thing because it gave those people the ability to see what was happening over there, what their mission was specifically.”

Still, especially in a six-hour series or two-hour documentary film, there’s always a lot left out. “It only shows 1 percent what pararescuemen can do,” Hansen said. “There’s nothing about shooting or jumping or diving or technical rescue, like collapsed structure, confined space, high angle, Arctic, adverse terrain operations.”

That sounds like material for a third season or special, and considering the strength and impact of the first two installments, I hope National Geographic continues with the franchise.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.