HULMAN FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, IN, UNITED STATES --
Most Airmen serving in the Air Force do not engage in rigorous physical training sessions as part of their official duties. Most Airmen do not complete Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training. Most Airmen do not partner closely with Soldiers in ground combat. And most Airmen do not control battlefields with the power of close air support.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Antonio Cataldo, a tactical air control party member assigned to the 113th Air Support Operations Squadron and 305th Airman in the history of the Air Force to graduate U.S. Army Ranger School, is not like most Airmen.
As a TAC-P, Cataldo serves as a go-between for the Army and Air Force to provide close air support to ground commanders.
“The Army does things very differently from the Air Force," said Cataldo. "The Army needed a liaison between the Air Force and the Army to speak both languages. So we provide tactical air control party and joint terminal attack controller capabilities.”
Simply put, TAC-Ps like Cataldo bring significant capabilities to Soldiers in their war fighting efforts.
“Our primary mission is to provide air action by fixed or rotary wing, or unmanned systems against hostile targets in close proximity to friendly forces to support the fire and maneuver of those forces,” said Cataldo. “We provide air support to allow the Army to fire and maneuver to support and win our nation’s wars.”
TAC-P training on the Air Force side itself is no small task. Aside from TAC-P technical training at their schoolhouse, Air National Guard TAC-Ps complete Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, an Introduction to Combat Skills Training course, Mission Essential Seasoning Training, and Career Development Course self-study and examination. From there, fully-qualified TAC-Ps are able to complete a variety of follow-on schools.
One of those schools is the famed Army Ranger School, from which Cataldo graduated in 2018.
“Ranger School is good to do because you need to know what Army fire and maneuver is like in order to support it,” said Cataldo. “Going to Ranger School allowed me to learn how the Army fires and maneuvers, how it reacts to things and where all the moving pieces end up so I can do my job better as a JTAC.”
The training itself presented a variety of challenges.
“It was not what I expected,” said Cataldo. “It started off with go, no-go events right off the bat. You work on land navigation, PT tests, ruck marches, Ranger tactical tasks, programming of radios and a bunch of other tasks used to weed people out. It’s all day that you’re doing something, and you’re getting smoked in between tasks. The idea is to break you down mentally and physically as much as they can.”
Despite those challenges, Cataldo approached the training with a tenacious mindset.
“I’ve never quit anything in my life,” said Cataldo. “I thought what a disappointment I’d would be to my friends and family if I quit. That was a huge motivator.”
That motivation pushed Cataldo through the rigors of training.
“I told Major Grant, who is a former Army Green Beret and current Ranger tab bearer and Air Liaison Officer at our unit, that I would either graduate Ranger School or I would die,” said Cataldo. “I told myself that I don’t have the option to quit. No. Not me.”
By taking that motivation to heart and completing the training, Cataldo became one of a select few Airmen ever to graduate Ranger School. Earning the Ranger tab has provided Cataldo with instant credibility when briefing ground commanders. Moreover, Cataldo enhanced his leadership skills through the training.
“A big thing I learned in Ranger School is making people want to work for you,” said Cataldo. “The way to do that is to be real with people. Forging a bond definitely helps people want to work for you. If you aren’t respectable as a person, then people do not want to work for you. As long as you reciprocate that respect you will be successful. It’s a ‘same team, same fight’ type of thing.”
Having internalized that leadership skill, Cataldo has since shared it with fellow TAC-P members with the 113th ASOS.
“There’s a saying that you can be a tab wearer or a tab bearer,” said Cataldo. “A wearer focuses on collecting tabs and going to special schools. A bearer, however, follows the Ranger code of conduct. My focus is always to be a tab bearer and teach young guys how to do this, that and the other thing.”
With that mantra in mind, Cataldo has advised Airmen in his unit who are preparing to attend Ranger School themselves.
“I tell the other TAC-Ps to know the academics and know what you are capable of bringing,” said Cataldo. “Everybody has something they’re good at in Ranger School. If you can come to your leaders and tell you that you can do that every single time, then they’ll rely on that skill. Know what you bring to the fight and be a likeable guy.”
Cataldo’s fellow TAC-P members recognize his mentoring efforts.
“From a mentoring standpoint, he’s been training me with small unit tactic classes and we’re supposed to sit down for even more classes,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kai Johnson, a TAC-P member with the 113th ASOS. “He’s a great mentor. He’s helped out a lot of young guys, and I look up to him a lot. If I have a question, I go to him first, no matter what, even before he was a non-commissioned officer.”
Moving forward, the opportunities for Cataldo to hone his war fighting skills do not end with Ranger School. Cataldo has also completed Army Airborne School, and he intends to push himself even further.
“Soon, I will be going to Hurlburt Field, Florida for a special tactics squadron assessment,” said Cataldo. “I was accepted to complete an assessment where, if I am successful, I will become active duty with a special tactics squadron. Then everything changes. It’s a very training intensive environment, and it also means more deployment opportunities.”
With that additional experience, Cataldo intends to further build the 113th ASOS.
“My intent is to come back to the Guard,” said Cataldo. “I hope I can take my experiences to make this unit better with training and opportunities. Getting into the special tactics community and making points of contact allows for great networking opportunities for training. It would be neat to hopefully one day come back and train guys in this unit.”
Still, the selection process will be no easy task, and Cataldo acknowledges the difficulties ahead.
“If I don’t get picked up, then I use that experience and grow up from it,” said Cataldo. “You get a critique that explains what the evaluators liked and disliked and where to improve. It will be super beneficial for my career so I will know what to work on as an individual, controller and leader. Either way, it’s going to be a good experience.”
Regardless of the outcome, Cataldo has already proven himself a capable warfighter and respected mentor. No matter what the future holds, Cataldo can reflect on how the Airmen and Soldiers with whom he serves can place their trust in him that he will give his all and, in turn, give back to others as a servant leader in the spirit of the Air Force core values.