Hulman Field, Ind. --
It's so stinking hot in here; my petroleum jelly is now a liquid. It looks like a jar of lemonade and probably has just as much lubricating power. Senior Master Sgt. Paul Norton informed me an hour ago that the heat index was 102. I'm lying on my poncho liner in a pool of my own sweat wondering if that burning, itching sensation on my knee is poison ivy or a heat rash. Either way, I dare not scratch and spread this evil plant juice to more valuable parts of my body. The major in the cot on my left has already decided that scratching is the way to go. The Combat Photographer on my right has been motionless for hours. I think he is dead. Oh well, I guess Hell won't get photographed today. The Commander across from my feet is so tired that he can't muster up a manly snore. The master sergeant across from him has back pain so bad that it sounds like he is in the final round of a losing battle with 1970's wrestling champion "Dick the Bruiser." I don't even know the whereabouts of the other master sergeant. The pelican case fort he has made for himself in the far corner of the tent is eerily silent and empty. "KA-BOOM", we are woken by a series of thunderous bangs and someone shouting, "The FOB is under mortar attack, do you have your people?" I think I just found Master Sgt. Ed Shulman. The cloth tape above my left breast pocket says U.S. Air Force, but it definitely doesn't feel like it. And so begins day two of the Field Training Exercise (FTX).
The 113th ASOS recently completed its annual training (AT) at Marseilles Training Center (MTC), Illinois near Joliet. This was not a normal AT. We chose to focus on scenario based training, versus ancillary training, in order to give our Airmen the opportunity to learn much needed leadership skills while being challenged with the stressors of mission operations. This was the kind of training that makes Marines glad they're in the Marine Corps and not the ASOS. This was all about the "ables", accountable, culpable and endurable. We purposely introduced long days and thinking scenarios, Mother Nature kicked in the heat, humidity, rain and poison ivy, so each Airman would learn their capabilities in a stressful environment. All of the training was hands on and combat focused for both the Tactical Air Control Party Operators and the support section. Everyone in the ASOS needs to be able to perform in austere combat environments and the training was designed to ensure that everyone walked, or in some cases limped, away with that ability. "Anyone can make a decision in an office or spend hours concocting the perfect motivational email", said Shulman, "all of our people need to be capable of making critical decisions and executing complex missions at combat speed without stumbling over their own discomfort or uncertainty" That kind of leadership can't be taught in a classroom, in fact, it can't be taught at all. That level of situational and tactical leadership can only be learned through the trial and error of real world experiences and that was the key idea that guided all of our training.
The first four days of AT were filled with nearly non-stop tactical training that often took us from early morning well into the night. The training started with practical exercises on rural and urban patrolling and day/night foot and vehicle navigation. We then moved into vehicle reactions to contact and two days of day/night live fire exercises. ASOS Airmen shot over 19,000 5.56mm and 9,800 9mm rounds on a variety of static and maneuver live fire ranges. The final shooting event took place well after midnight on the fourth day and pitted teams of ASOS Airmen, armed with night vision goggles, rifle mounted IR aiming lasers and a basic load of 210 5.56mm rounds, against a horde of reactive targets from 50-350meters. The targets presented themselves at random distances and numbers forcing Airmen to maintain 100% situational awareness throughout the event. "Maintaining your cool while rapidly transitioning from a 350m threat to the 3x 50m threats that just popped up in front of you isn't easy, but it's realistic which is why we train this way" said Senior Airman Zach Eason, TACP.
The AT culminated in a four day FTX that continued to challenge all members both individually and collectively. The reality of the situation set in when Shulman held a meeting with the squadron leadership at 2200 on Wednesday night and presented us with a detailed scenario, aptly dubbed "OPERATION ABDOMEN VERIFY". The mission called for us to have the entire force re-deployed to a bare bones Forward Operating Base (FOB Pain) in a simulated combat zone no later than 0900 on Friday. 35 hours of notice seemed like plenty of time to plan, prepare and mobilize until we considered that there was already 10 hours of training planned for Thursday and that "simulated combat" likely referred more to the presence of indiviudal explosive devices, mortars, rockets and bullets than their absence. One mile out from our destination, the previous four days of training suddenly made sense. One of our vehicles erupted in a cloud of smoke from a simulated IED strike and a hail of gunfire and grenade simulators rained down from several rooftops. After negotiating the urban gauntlet we identified that one of our vehicles had been disabled and was still in the city. At that point this was no longer a point A to point B mission and we had to quickly re-organize our force into an offensive rescue element. After fighting back into the city to recover our wounded and learning a few hard lessons along the way we finally made it to FOB Pain and immediately established operations. The FOB quickly became a hive of activity with the well choreographed deployment of tactical laptops, communication suites, antenna farms, planning areas all while maintaining local security. A few hours later the main generators came online and the "death star" became fully operational. Just in time for the commander to get handed orders for a mission that took us back into the town we just fought our way out of. At that moment I realized sleep would be an elusive luxury, and was glad I had not wasted my time setting up a cot. By 0400 the next morning we had completed two additional squadron level missions involving complex blacked-out vehicle and foot patrols, direct actions raids, and of course, more grenade simulators, booby-traps and force on force engagements. As the sun rose that morning and I finally laid down to rest I couldn't help but wonder what day two would have in store for us. Five hours later I had my answer.
Shortly after our morning muster, in a bunker quickly filling with smoke (for a definition of 'muster', see paragraph 1), friendly suggestions for improved accountability were handed out with our next series of missions. This time the Battalion (BN) TACPs were given the location of the cache site where the attack on our FOB had been initiated. Each BN independently planned their mission and back briefed the Squadron Commander prior to execution. The ability of our Operators to intelligently plan and brief their missions is just as important as their ability to complete them, and the training reflected such. As the teams departed the FOB they were handed a series of Tyvek envelopes marked only with large letters and instructions not to open them until directed to do so by Shulman. As the teams later found out the envelopescontained a variety of new mission directives that were carefully planned to force the team leaders to think on their feet and react to a dynamic situation. We provided command and control for the team missions throughout the next 36 hours. The dynamic scenarios ranged from a 'soft knock' on the unfriendly Mayor's door to a day/night Special Reconnaissance (SR) mission that had me dressed like an indigenous citizen covertly inserting teams of TACPs. The SR mission developed into angry villagers (support section), and captured American pilot (Master Sgt. Bob Basch). Our quick thinking TACPs executed a successful Ad Hoc rescue mission, complete withfirefight, stolen opposing force vehicle, and exfil back to FOB Pain.
Finally, a field grade assignment. The command staff was asked to head out to the urban village to role play High Value Targets (HVTs) to facilitate training for the teams tasked on a SR mission. Shortly after being dropped off in a wood line near the village, I was informed that the BN teams had been re-tasked to OP-FOR to hunt down the three man crew of a downed B-1B. Just as the commander and I began to suspect we may have been set up, Maj. Scot Perkins launched three parachute flares into the sky and suggested that we start moving since they know where we are now. There is nothing like three 'forty somethings' evading three teams of 'twenty somethings' to get your heart rate up. Fast forward several hours of over the river and through the woods to a successful combat pickup executed by our support section. Age and wisdom beat youth and enthusiasm in this scenario.
It has been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and a lot of complaining. That was us on August 2nd, but not us on August 13th. We overcame a major obstacle and now have a clearer understanding of our duties and roles in the ASOS. Lt. Col. Pat Renwick, commander, commented on how the entire ASOS came together as a team; from the TACPs running operations, to the command and control provided by the Tactical Operation Center staff, to the support section running combat re-supply and medical evacuation missions. All were tasked outside their normal comfort zone, with outstanding results.
We would like to thank Col. Colbert for his visit and for helping us put rounds down range. We also want to thank all the 181st IW support agencies that helped us train for this event, and provided invaluable assistance to make this an outstanding AT. Combat Arms Training and Maintenance for providing extra effort to gain weapons qualifications, Services for ensuring we had the beans to go with our bullets, Logistics Readiness Squadron and Traffice Management Office for getting us out the door, and AMMO for ensuring we had the bullets to go with our beans. It was genuinely a team effort executed in true Racer fashion.
The training events for this AT were created by Master Sgt. Shulman with the help of Maj. Perkins. Their expertise and experience have been invaluable. The attitude and professionalism of the squadron was nothing short of remarkable. It's been a great experience to work with the men and woman of the ASOS. Now, if only we could just get thirty more warriors like the ones we have.