|Tactical Air Command and Control|
|A Cose Call|
Like contestants on a survival-based reality television show, the airmen ensured they had everything they would need to sustain operations for at least three days. A complete inventory from beans to bullets was accounted for before being loaded into each configured Humvee. They were ready to deploy.
Airmen like Senior Airman Courtney Hinson, a terminal attack controller, are entrusted with an MRC-144 weapons system a half-million dollars in communications equipment housed within a Humvee. As part of the 18th Air Support Operations Group, supporting 18th Airborne Corps, Hinson and his comrades are responsible for keeping their systems and the mission running. And testing frequencies is part of knowing the system.
We can talk to anyone in the world from that equipment, Hinson said. From Pope, Ive talked to the base operator at Thule, Greenland, using a high frequency.
Its those frequencies that help tactical air controllers get aircraft to the fight. The controllers coordinate airspace and call in air strikes as advisers to Army ground commanders on what air power can bring to the fight.
Were aligned with the Army, not attached. Were with them every day so theres a good rapport, and trust is built up, said Master Sgt. Hal Sullivan, 22nd Air Support Squadron flight superintendent at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.
Both tactical air controllers and soldiers wear black berets, so sometimes its difficult to tell there are airmen on the battlefield. And they work with the Army so much that many of them are more familiar with Army culture than their bluesuit roots.
I couldnt tell you how many people are in a squadron or flight, said Tech. Sgt. Trevor Sok, a terminal attack controller. But I could tell you how many people are in a battalion. You have to speak Army. When you speak the lingo and wear Army patches, youre a part of the green Air Force.
In fact, with 16 years of being an airman, Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was the first base hes been stationed at the rest have all been Army posts. Its more the rule than an exception in this career field.
And most of the time, these controllers are the only enlisted people surrounded by officers in tactical operation center meetings. But that doesnt seem to bother them. Theyre handpicked and carefully screened for the career field, and they enjoy the empowerment of the job.
I have staff sergeants representing the Air Force to special forces group commanders, Sullivan said.
A testament to abilities
With technical sergeants making decisions a lieutenant colonel could be making, Sullivan said its a testament to their abilities and the training they receive.
These guys are squared away. I dont have to look over their shoulders they make their own decisions, he said. Theyre aggressive and can make quick decisions on their feet. They are doing what they do because they want to, not because they have to.
Its a job that most of these men, it seems, have indirectly trained for most of their lives. As a child, Hinson enjoyed the outdoors and played GI Joe, so the front-line excitement and challenge of doing this job, in the heat of battle, was just his speed.
With recreational hobbies like camping, hunting and fishing, the rustic lifestyle of Army field training is something most of these outdoorsmen actually look forward to.
I enjoy getting out of the office to play in the field with the Army, said Senior Airman Charles Hathaway, a terminal attack controller.
Admittedly, day-to-day operations within the unit can be dull. But 12-mile road marches once a week and daily physical training keeps them moving and conditioned for exposure to any environment.
If Im in trouble, my buddy is going to do everything he can to take make sure I get back, Hinson said. Weve got the best training in the world and get to do stuff that Hollywood portrays on TV.
Practice with purpose
The need to constantly practice technical skills, in an exercise environment, gets them focused on what could happen when in the field.
We have to be experts on aircraft capabilities and weapons effects to protect the friendlies on the ground and destroy the target, Sullivan said.
But these guys want to be where the action is, at the leading edge of the fight. Three to five Humvees are at any given theater location to support strategic positioning and ensure backup systems are ready. Long-range surveillance teams, or scout teams, get visual identification of the target and make recommendations. Its what they train to do.
With air power, we can put bombs on a target any place in the world at a moments notice, Sok said. All it takes is someone on a radio calling and telling them the target location.
And other airmen doing the same job agree. They can be as close to the target as 165 yards, so, many times, theyre watching target destruction.
Theres nothing like exiting an aircraft, and then, when you get on the ground, watching a 2,000-pound bomb disintegrate a target. That blast takes your breath away, Hinson said. You know that youre the superior world force.
Its an excitement thats shared throughout the career field with airmen like Staff Sgt. Shannon Cruz, another terminal attack controller. He never gets tired of seeing the aircraft come in and take care of business. The highlight of his career was when he was deployed to Kuwait. He controlled 80 close air support sorties in 45 days.
And with close air support a necessity in hot spots like Afghanistan, its reassuring to know these guys are experts and close by, even though their families wish they were home. With an average deployment rate of 120 days on temporary duty, the mission takes a toll on home life, and the pace isnt likely to improve for some time.
In light of the current world situation, theyre in high demand, and there arent enough of them to do what needs to be done, Sullivan said.
Despite increased requirements, an unexpected outcome has emerged as a result of this war on terrorism.
Operation Enduring Freedom brought to light the importance of special operations, he said.
Veterans like Sok believe the events have renewed confidence in the Air Force and what tactical air control parties can contribute to the fight.
Were proving more and more our value and that were capable of doing the job, Cruz said.
Article by 1st Lt. Carie A. Seydel, Published in Airman's Magazine