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Air Force Combat Controllers Play a Key Role

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Attention to detail is also vital for combat controllers, as well as ability to work as a team. "In our role as combat controllers, sometimes you're leading and sometimes you're following," Boulanger said. "You have to be able to do both."

But even more important, Tennant said, is mental toughness. "You have to be stubborn and have a non-quit attitude," he said. "It takes an extraordinary level of dedication."

Dedication "isn't something you can teach," Boulanger acknowledged. "But you can teach all the things that lead up to it."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praised combat controllers' dedication during a visit in December to the Combat Control School, which he said, "produces some of the finest warriors in the Air Force and the armed services." Rumsfeld noted that "some 85 percent of the air strikes in Operation Enduring Freedom were called in by Air Force combat controllers" — a testament, he said, to the quality of the training they receive and the airmen's courage and skills.

Today's combat controllers carry out far more diverse missions than envisioned when they were established as Army Pathfinders during World War II. These parachute infantrymen, trained in air traffic control, first earned their stripes in 1943 when they used radios, smoke pots and flares to mark the way for 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers jumping into Salerno, Italy.

Since then, Army Pathfinders — which became Air Force combat controllers after the Air Force was established in 1947 -- expanded their missions to include navigation aid and air traffic control. Now they're an integral part of a huge percentage of U.S. military combat, humanitarian assistance and other missions.

Combat controllers say they expect this trend to continue in the future. "Special Forces is just screaming for us out there," said Boulanger. "This is a growth industry," agreed Tennant, "with combat controllers involved in more and more emerging missions."

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