HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii: Rain and mud may not have been forecasted for radio operators, maintainers and drivers’ training in the wilderness, but Airmen geared up anyway to practice combat lifesaver skills, convoys, air-assault egression, and improvised explosive device reaction with one goal in mind: to become combat mission-ready joint terminal attack controllers.
Tactical air control party members camped at Wheeler Army Airfield’s East Range near Hickam AFB June 23-26 to sharpen proficiencies necessary for upgrade training.
When deployed, these young men who volunteered for the TACP career field are responsible for calling in close-air support and providing clearance for air assaults to ensure the right targets are reached. Stationed with Army combat units on the ground, they must be also prepared to administer first aid and survive in a hostile environment. As combat Airmen, their jobs incorporate expertise above and beyond what’s normally required of warriors in blue.
“Because they’re training now, they’ll have a better idea of what to expect when they get to Afghanistan with an Army unit,” Staff Sgt. Mike Crabb said of the E-2s to E-4s in attendance. As an experienced JTAC, he was the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of the week’s training. “It’s very realistic. All the Army guys here have deployed several times and know what kinds of scenarios they’ll face in the field.”
After flying in on Army National Guard CH-47 Chinooks, ROMADs navigated their way through wet brush and uneven terrain to their designated camping area. Armed with M-4s and radio and global positioning system equipment, they were “ambushed” along the way by pseudo attackers, setting off pyrotechnics and dodging rocket-propelled grenades courtesy of the 15th Civil Engineer Squadron’s explosive ordnance disposal flight.
“The chaos gives them an idea how they’ll react under pressure,” Sergeant Crabb said.
As one of the more experienced Airmen in the group, Senior Airman Robert Gaines, 25th ASOS TACP, is very close to having all of his combat mission-ready requirements completed for JTAC upgrade.
“Repetition through training allows us to apply what we know rapidly when we’re in a strenuous situation, so doing this on a frequent basis is very useful,” said the 21-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., native.
It’s training like this that ensures safe and reliable wartime readiness and prepared Airman Gaines, who recently returned from a six-month deployment to Camp Taji, Iraq.
“In this [training] environment, we’re working with actual Army personnel as we would in the field, and using all the operational equipment we use day-to-day downrange,” he said. “It’s good to get out here and get ‘broken in’ in a sense. We’re able to not only use the equipment and communicate but also apply field skills we’ve been taught either in a classroom or shop environment.”
Although learning to communicate between teams, react under pressure, and apply basic job skills was the main goal for the week, 20-year-old Airman Michael Ilizaliturri said being a TACP requires a wholly different level of physical and mental conditioning from any other career field in the Air Force.
“This week, we’re not really carrying much gear, but we’ve done training before where we have to carry everything on a 12-mile ruck march,” he said. Standing at five foot seven and weighing about 145 pounds, he’s “one of the smallest TACPs” and has, at times, almost doubled his weight in gear. That kind of physical taxation, he said, pushes him to a whole new level of capability.
“It’s all in your head,” Airman Ilizaliturri said. He, like many other TACPs, wanted this specific Air Force Specialty Code because it constantly forces them into physically and mentally challenging situations.
Whether it’s focusing on taking care of someone who’s “bleeding” while taking small-arms fire, or forcing himself to keep walking when he runs out of water at mile eight, “I just tell myself I can do it, and I do,” he said.
The trainers agreed 25th ASOS Airmen integrated well with the Army, took the instruction and applied it to the scenarios well, and returned with valuable lessons learned.
According to Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Wehr, 25th Infantry Division Headquarters, Headquarters Company 114th Infantry forward observer, “They did a great job out here, and I have no doubt when they integrate with the Army in the field they’ll be mission capable.”