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Former Monticello student plays central role in Thailand cave rescue

For a two and a half week stretch from June 23 through July 10, the world found itself captivated by the story of a young soccer team trapped deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Thailand.

The harrowing ordeal grabbed front pages from Minneapolis to Myanmar, as 12 boys and their coach were stranded by flooding waters while the world's brightest minds engineered ideas to bring them out safely before monsoon season kicked in.

While most of us, especially from this part of the world, were merely spectators in the ordeal - one of Monticello’s own found himself smack dab in the middle of all of it, charged with commanding one of many teams that helped orchestrate the daring rescue.

Mitch Torrel, a former Monticello student in the Class of 2008 who left the district to pursue a hockey career at the age of 16, is a Captain in the United States Air Force as a Special Tactics Officer. He currently serves as a Troop Commander at the mighty 320 STS, US Pacific Commands sole Air Force Special Operations ground maneuver element and air integration force. The 320 STS, based in Japan, trains and employs highly trained Special Tactics Teams (STTs) for rapid global employment to enable airpower success through global access, precision strike, and personnel recovery as directed by the 353rd Special Operations Group in support of Theater Special Operations Command objectives.

Torrel’s unit was assigned to the Thailand cave rescue, and when his fellow commander on duty had surgery and was ruled out, Torrel was left as the man in charge.

Recently, Torrel talked to the Air Force Academy, where he went to college and had a standout hockey career, for a “Where Are They Now” video that was released earlier this month. He also answered additional questions via email for the Monticello School District.

His pursuit of hockey is what pushed him to the Air Force Academy, and his passion for a team atmosphere and camaraderie helped lead him to specialize in special tactics, after spending two years in a grueling Combat Control Training Pipeline.

“It’s a two year grind in which more than 90 percent of candidates fail out,” said Torrel. “Once it’s complete, you are trained and qualified in light and heavy weapons, demolitions, open and closed circuit diving, static line and military free fall parachuting, small unit tactics, and air traffic control.”

Torrel also has advanced qualification as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller.

His assignment in Japan has largely been spent traveling the Pacific region to train partner nation forces and enable them to counter violent extremist organizations, as well as provide humanitarian and disaster relief when called upon.

When the dire reality of the cave situation in Thailand was fully realized, Torrel’s group was one of several operations from around the world to be called in.

Torrel said there wasn’t a real need for their equipment, or any physical tools they had that no one else had - rather it was the unit’s ability to problem solve that was most desired.

“They had everything that we had, but we have a very unique way of looking at problem sets, and we do military decision making very well,” said Torrel.

As a leader, Torrel said one of his main jobs in Thailand was to communicate and work together with the bevy of other organizations there. He credits his ability to do that back to his sports background, which was fostered in Monticello before continuing to blossom at Air Force.

Communication was certainly key, as during the rescue process the group worked with teams from Britain, Australia, China, and Thailand.

“You need to be able to work in those team settings. It’s extremely important that you understand how that team aspect works,” he said. “A lot of what I was responsible for doing out there in Thailand was just maintaining those relationships, because we weren’t doing anything unless they approved it.”

The Air Force Special Ops group provided physical help as well. Torrel said that prior to the rescue the group hauled 270 oxygen tanks forward to chamber three in the cave.

“We were just pack mules for a little bit,” he said. “You know, that’s not the sexy part of the mission, but it was something that enabled it to go.”

When the rescue mission got underway, Torrel’s team was responsible for receiving a number of the kids as they made their way out of the cave, performing a quick medical check, and moving them forward to the next stage.

Torrel remarked in the video about just how amazing each of his teammates performed under pressure, and told ISD 882 that’s one of the things he’ll remember most about the operation.

“What I will always remember will be the amazing group of talented individuals who came from all corners of the world and combined their various skill sets in order to accomplish one of the most difficult rescue missions ever,” said Torrel. “They risked their lives and that experience will always drive a close bond.”

Torrel said that without question his upbringing in Monticello has played a major factor in preparing him to be the leader that he is today.

“I remember Mr. [Jason] Telecky had been in the Marines, and he had a lasting impression on me. Monticello had a lot of fantastic teachers when I was going through, all of which were positive influences,” said Torrel. “The biggest influence, however, was my group of friends. Monticello was an amazing place to grow up and it’s one of the main reasons I am who I am today.”

Torrel added that while he hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect on the cave rescue mission, he realizes how special of an opportunity it all was.

“We continue to find ourselves busy, and I continue to look forward towards the next task,” he told ISD 882. “But I am very blessed to have been involved in the rescue operation, and humbled that I was able to play a central part.”

To watch the eight-minute video, which includes a lot of additional fascinating insight and information from Torrel, as well as video highlights of his standout hockey career, visit HERE