ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England --
Night has fallen as an elite team of combat search and rescue operatives darts silently through the shadows.
The point man spots a suspicious vehicle ahead and motions to his fellow Airmen, who quickly disperse into position to neutralize potential threats.
After extensive research, planning and training, the window of opportunity is open for a bold attempt to recover a well-known figure within the U.S. Air Force pararescue community.
His tenure dates back to just before the Vietnam conflict, when “Para Jumpers” became known simply as PJs.
Originally from Fiji, he's served with nearly every Air Force pararescue unit, deploying to Southeast Asia, Libya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan during times of conflict spanning six decades.
While small in stature, he wears jump wings, diving fins, and a medallion presented by none other than the Dalai Lama.
And if all goes according to plan during tonight’s operation, "Charlie" the PJ will soon be on his way back to the United Kingdom for the first time in more than a decade.
As their team leader approaches the suspicious vehicle -- lights out but engine running -- other PJs from the 57th Rescue Squadron, scan the perimeter.
Suddenly, the doors of a nearby building crash open in a blinding flash as a figure sprints into the darkness toward the humming motor.
The Lakenheath PJs spring into action and engage opposing forces in an attempt to secure Charlie.
After a brief but intense skirmish, they prevail, retaining possession of one of the most unlikely and unusual icons of Air Force heritage.
Standing tall at 18 inches and displaying a wild -- yet wooden -- gaze, Charlie wasn't always famous.
Sometime between 1960 and 1964, according to the Pararescue Association website, PJ Tony Willis discovered a carved wooden South Sea demi-god "of unbelievable proportions and ugliness" in the tropical island group of Fiji.
He was then christened "Charlie" and would soon receive an initial pararescue qualification check-ride, earning jump wings, a parachute, diving mask, and fins from the 48th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
Word of his uniqueness began to spread throughout the career field, and his presence was demanded at numerous postings, according to the website.
Late in 1964, "an unknown assailant—or assailants—within the Pararescue Brotherhood, infiltrated Charlie's quarters and whisked him away to the scenic location of the 55th ARRS, then located on the Atlantic isle of Bermuda."
This was the first of a long line of stealthy abductions of Charlie, according to the website.
Not just anyone could attempt to take Charlie, however, and a list of "rules of acquisition and possession" began to evolve.
The first two rules establish that Charlie will be absconded only by fully and currently qualified or retired PJs, and that "any effort by non-pararescue personnel to abscond Charlie will be met with the full, unified force of the career field."
Charlie spent the next decade moving from unit to unit, spending time with PJs in action across the globe until he was "retired" by Willis in 1975.
However, by career field-wide demand, he was returned to Fort Walton Beach, Fla. in 1984, according to the website. His "reenlistment" was conducted by then-Maj. Gen. William Mall, Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service commander.
Since then, Charlie's appearance has changed little. He's been wearing his PJ beret for more than a decade now, and only the medal from the Dalai Lama is a more recent addition.
In 2013, then-Senior Master Sgt. Robert Disney, a Wounded Warrior and PJ, journeyed to the Mt. Everest base camp in the Himalayas, where he met the famous Buddhist monk and was presented with a medallion.
Disney later decided it should be worn by Charlie, as a tribute to the entire PJ community, said one PJ from the 57th RQS, who played a key role in Charlie's recent return to England.
It was a source of great pride, the PJ said, to bring Charlie back to the squadron.
"For us, the existence of Charlie and 56 years of him being in the community really does personify the existence of the career field for as long as it's been around," he said. "He's basically seen a whole generation of pararescue from start to finish."
Charlie, he noted, may move from one unit to another, but he's a significant figure to an entire Air Force community.
Over time, he said, the career field has lost many members along the way.
"This is something that's been around since before we lost most of them," he said. "All the way through Vietnam, through Iraq, through Afghanistan, and all the other contingency operations we've played a role.
It helps us remember and keep the career field alive," he continued. "It's a constant reminder of all we've sacrificed and why we serve."
Charlie, he said, is a tangible way to touch and feel the history of pararescue.