|Air Force Combat Controllers|
|Shoot, Move, Communicate|
For combat controllers, a "day at the office" isnt a cup of coffee and the morning paper its more like a jump in the drink and making the news.
When Master Sgt. Paul Vinnie Venturella leaves for the office, hes got a variety of transportation options.
I can get to work in any manner jumping, diving, walking, vehicle, boat or submarine, the 16-year combat controller said.
Thats because when they punch in these warriors of the 321st Special Tactics Squadron at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, are expected to get to work fast. So theres no time for a coffee break.
We have to be able to get in immediately and establish terminal control providing both air traffic control and, when necessary, close air support [of fighters] without any infrastructure and little airlift, said Maj. Michael Sneeder, squadron commander.
For example, when conducting combat rescue operations, special tactics operators are trained to push a boat out of a plane over the ocean in the dark of night, freefall parachute into the water, inflate the boat and get to the mission. Theyre equipped to endure any environment on land, sea or sky.
Although this operational version of extreme transportation sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, these ironmen dont have the luxury of wearing designer suits. And instead of hidden pocket-sized gadgets, theyre sporting more than 100 pounds of equipment, including chemical gear, rucksack, parachute and radio equipment, on their backs when they hit the ground running.
When we get to work, our job is to talk on the radio and make things happen, Venturella said. Were an air-to-ground interface a conduit of information that ties the ground to the air operationally.
Making things happen requires these camo-clad comrades to adapt to any environmental condition. And training takes care of this, physically and mentally.
Basically we have to drownproof our people to develop their confidence so when theyre in a tough situation they can survive, Sneeder said.
More than confidence
But dropping into austere locations in extreme conditions takes more than just confidence. Speed is the name of the game when an operation depends on controllers setting up an airfield.
I can put a guy on a motorcycle, and he can pull portable lights out of his rucksack, shortly after landing at the location, to mark a runway, Sneeder said.
In Somalia, one of many examples, combat control teams landed and set up landing zone operations and communications immediately with equipment they carried in rucksacks. Then for three weeks, they safely controlled a large volume of air traffic before a mobile air traffic control unit was airlifted to the location to relieve them.
The nature of the business requires these guys have the juice it takes to be in top physical condition.
We jump out of airplanes, scuba dive, shoot and rappel, said Tech. Sgt. James Ski Pulaski, Blue Team flight superintendent. Combat control requires us to maintain a high level of physical fitness.
And at least once a year, that fitness level is put to the test. Standard physical training evaluations measure the warriors ability to perform under physical pressure. They must complete a three-mile run, 1,500-meter swim, push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups within an allotted time. Training for this takes hours at the gym and pounding the pavement. But theres more to working out than evaluations.
Developing muscle mass through weightlifting ensures the body endures the trauma of jumping out of an airplane,Sneeder said.
Pickin up whats goin down
Beyond the brawn, brains keep them performing. Although prioritizing can be hectic, situational awareness, constant flexibility, forward thinking and problem solving are skills that make or break a mission. And they are skills that must be mastered.
Being in charge as an air traffic controller, youre the man in charge of the airfield. Nothing goes on without you knowing it, Pulaski
said. I get a real rush when Im rockin on the mike, separating air traffic and keeping things moving.
According to Venturella, thats a reason he fondly refers to combat controllers as sled dogs.
The lead dog is the number-one, go-to guy. The musher is the team leader and the sled dogs are the work force the muscle behind getting the job done, he explained.
The sled dogs are part of what hes enjoyed about the Air Force.
The people Ive been associated with from day one have been the highlight of my career, Venturella said.
He summed up his time as a controller with a misery-loves-company comment. The best part of the job is knowing when youre in deep suck, your buddy is with you.
Blazing a trail
Ironically, despite the heavy operations tempo, many of the sled dogs are so motivated by their jobs they cant get off the ground enough.
They feel like theyre chained down if they cant go TDY, Pulaski said. Its hard to explain the dynamics of the job you gotta do it to know it.
These guys want to get out there and prosecute the mission, he said.
And these airmen not only do it, theyre experts at it. In lockers the size of small bathrooms, their military-issue equipment is stored in the hangar they call home. This makes deploying rapidly, as a prepared team, possible.
We need to be able to make the leap from air operations to ground operations.
Although hes more removed from the trail, as the senior enlisted manager, Venturella said being a sled dog during real-world missions is where its at.
Pulaski agreed and said keeping things in perspective helps him facilitate what the musher needs done.
However, he admitted, Sometimes it feels like youre trying to grasp sand in your hands. But if you prioritize and delegate, you can get the job done.
Unfortunately, many people have no idea what combat controllers actually do when it comes to getting the job done.
Among Air Force members, there are noncommissioned officers who dont know were Air Force special operations forces. Every other service knows who their special forces are, Pulaski said. No one really understands. They think we control combat. Even my wife has a hard time explaining what I do, so she tells people Im a cook.
With only 350 combat controllers in the career field and six bases they can move to and from, its not surprising theyre an elusive bunch to most of the force. But its more surprising that even airmen at bases theyre stationed at dont know about the scarlet berets.
I was at my first duty assignment, at McChord Air Force Base [Wash.], and this airman came up to me and asked What do you do? When I told him I was a combat controller stationed there he couldnt believe it, Venturella said. He was at my base and didnt know we were there.
He believes the lack of recognition and misunderstood role stems from not having a direct correlation to a civilian job.
Most Americans arent aware of what we do, and much of what we do isnt very sexy, he said. We dont have movies made about us so education is the key to understanding our mission.
He summarized what they do with three simple words shoot, move, communicate.
Brothers in arms
But it takes more than squared-away operators to keep things on track. Mission support airmen perform combat arms training and maintenance, vehicle and radio maintenance, intelligence and logistics functions to keep the brotherhood moving. Every 120 days, members enter into a training cycle that incorporates shooting on the run to keep proficient using the M-9 semiautomatic pistol and multifunctional M-4 rifle a shortened version of the M16A2 rifle.
Our guys know what to do in the field so when we attach to a joint unit its seamless, Sneeder said. Because if youre not communicating, youre not doing your job. Youre just a cool guy with neat merit badges.
With these adrenaline hounds, its all about the excitement of the mission.
How could you give this up when theres so much to get out of it? Pulaski asked. Even though there are sacrifices, youre always learning in this career field.
Article by Lt. Carie A. Seydel, Published in Airman's Magazine