For those in some Air Force specialties, seeing combat was not even a remote possibility when they signed up. Chaplains, civil engineers, public affairs officers, accountants, and managers, for example, don’t sound like front-line combat jobs.
Today, though, with almost everyone in the Air Force on the hook to spend at least some time in a forward deployed area, the service is determined airmen will not go without some fundamental skills in fighting and surviving in a combat zone.
Those skills are taught at Combat Airman Skills Training at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. There, two days into a CAST course, a group of airmen previously at home in a desk-and-PC environment find themselves face down in the mud, gripping a rifle.
A Combat Airman Skills Training student practices crawling with his weapon and equipment while under fire.
These first two days are an unnatural, confusing, and surreal experience for these airmen—which is exactly why they’re here.
Less than two weeks from deployment, Lt. Col. Charles Spillar, a 22-year veteran of space and cyber command and control operations from Petersen AFB, Colo., confided that CAST is "probably the third time in my life that I’ve handled a gun." Heading to Iraq to serve on the strategic planning staff at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Spillar is typical of those here getting ready to deploy.
Early on in Afghanistan and Iraq, bases and commands realized the need to prepare airmen to work in theaters without front lines. Not just battlefield airmen such as pararescue jumpers and combat controllers were in the crosshairs. Anyone can be a target.
Back then, there were multiple and varied such schools. Air Mobility Command had Advanced Contingency Skills Training (ACST), and Air Education and Training Command provided Common Battlefield Airman Training (C-BAT). These courses excelled in preparing airmen for deployment, however, many of those who would deploy fell through the cracks.
Thus, in 2008, USAF leaders tasked AETC to conduct a thorough review of existing training, with an eye toward standardization. With the ACST schoolhouse already well established, the Air Force Expeditionary Center was chosen to develop the common program, which today is known as CAST.
Joint Base McGuire is the largest of three CAST training sites, handling an average of 150 to 180 airmen per class. This year alone, McGuire will host 16 course rotations, prepping 3,648 airmen for potential combat zones. Between McGuire, and USAF’s two other CAST sites at Camp Guernsey, Wyo., and Camp Bullis, Tex., nearly 5,768 airmen will pass through the course—ideally, just in time for deployment.
While the curriculum is standard across all three sites, the training cadre at each is unique. At Bullis, instructors are combat specialists in areas such as combat control and pararescue, and Guernsey’s trainers are all security forces airmen. For its part, McGuire’s staff is a blend of "regular airmen" and prior-military contractors.
"All the different Air Force specialty codes—civil engineering, comm, you name it—they’re out there teaching," noted Col. Mark W. Ellis, Expeditionary Operations School commandant at McGuire.
"There’s some real goodness to airmen training airmen," added Lt. Col. David M. Lenderman, commander of the 421st Combat Training Squadron, which conducts the CAST training and the expeditionary center’s more specialized predeployment courses.
Essentials of Combat Survival
"It’s great for that warrior ethos to see that somebody like me has done this," he said.
On top of this, the 421st CTS civilian contract instructors add a wealth of tactical experience. Hired in 2010 to fill a shortfall of available, combat-experienced airmen, the 33 civilian instructors include former snipers, EOD techs, and combat infantry.
"Culturally, it’s exceptional to have it that way, but that blend has brought a lot of experience and a lot of different teaching styles," Lenderman said. "It is more intense."
"You get the best of both worlds," added Ellis.
"We’re not teaching them to be infantrymen and we’re not teaching them to be marines. These are airmen, going to airmen roles" in theater, emphasized Brig. Gen. William J. Bender, commander of the USAF Expeditionary Center. "You bring in an airman who’s never deployed and he walks around for the 12-day course with a weapon," Bender said. "We hold them accountable for how they handle that weapon, how they care for it. ... So that they’ve had just enough immersion in the [combat] environment" before they arrive in theater.
Unlike Army expeditionary training, CAST is the bare essentials of combat survival—how to react to enemy contact, communicate and move as a team, identify hazards such as improvised explosive devices, and come home.
"The marines and the soldiers are sent to prosecute the ground war. Our guys are being trained here to defend themselves, survive, and return, while continuing to be able to do their jobs—because they’re going to be threatened," explained Capt. Thomas E. Wenz III, a public affairs training instructor with the expeditionary center.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, there are few traditional lines or safe zones, meaning that no matter their role, airmen must be trained to react. Recent experience has shown that deadly fire can just as easily erupt in a classroom in Kabul as on convoy duty outside the base. Preparing airmen for the worst is the objective of CAST. It is a rude awakening—filled with explosions, smoke, gunfire, and a heavy dose of tactics.
In a brief 10 to 12 days, instructors saturate trainees with tactics and information. The instructors know full well they are giving airmen more than they can possibly absorb, but they also know that in the critical moment, subconscious retention and trained reflex can, and does, save lives.
"We’re trying to get that reflex response out of them—that muscle memory so when something happens, they know they need to do A, do B, and get the heck out of Dodge," explained TSgt. Luke Korpak, a CAST training instructor with the 421st Combat Training Squadron. Despite the pace, instructors emphasize a "crawl, walk, run" method of learning based on firsthand experience. The course is not intended to wash out students, but to prepare them.
On the first full day of training, the crawling is literal. After a few hours of classroom theory, airmen load up for the drive out to one of the joint base’s abundant Army ranges.
A CAST student holds her M4 ready, as she lies in wait as part of a force-on-force exercise between two groups of trainees.
The first order of the day is the low crawl. The maneuver is second nature to any soldier or marine, but few airmen ever have occasion to use it after basic training. Humbling it is, but denying enemies a clear shot is a skill best learned before it’s a matter of life or death.
Encumbered with a fragmentation vest, Kevlar helmet, field equipment, and rifle, the exercise is fatiguing. Some airmen move quickly, keeping a low profile and ready weapon, while others veer off course, lose ammunition pouches, or gouge their rifle barrel into the earth—costly missteps on hostile terrain, and eye-opening lessons in training.
The pace varies across the range from one squad to another. Some transition quickly to basic maneuvers, learning to communicate and move, cover their teammates, and function as an effective element. The "walk" and "run" phases build on this crucial foundation.
The pace is dictated by the airmen. "If we deem that they’re doing more poorly, then we’ll do it a whole lot more so they can get a handle on it and know exactly what they’re supposed to do," stated Korpak.
Choices To Be Made
By early afternoon, the class is up and walking. Airmen are each issued two magazines of 5.56 mm blank cartridges for an M16 or M4 carbine rifle, depending on the weapon with which they’ll deploy. There’s still awkwardness in the way many carry the weapon, but as one of the squads forms on a road for the next exercise, they all show an understanding of their role.
On the instructor’s command, the squad splits into two single files evenly spaced down both sides of the gravel road. With dense forest on either side, each person scans a sector intently as the formation moves. The airmen are initially alert, maintaining even spacing and good discipline. The forest is calm and a light drizzle falls. After 15 minutes of crunching along, however, the column begins to bunch toward the front, leaving two airmen covering the rear some 130 feet behind. Complacency is a matter of time and this is precisely what the instructors are waiting for.
Without warning, the squad leader in the center of the formation drops to the ground. There is no shot and no explosion heard. The only sound is the dull thud of his body hitting the gravel.
"What are you going to do?" shouts Nathaniel Hutt, an advanced marksmanship instructor and the squad’s civilian trainer for the exercise. Suddenly, there are split-second choices to be made. With the squad leader down, someone must step up to take the lead, communicate a plan, and take decisive action.
For airmen accustomed to discussion and problem solving, this is a totally new mindset that instructors are putting to the test. Here, airmen are taught above all not to leave a comrade behind. They are also taught to assume instantaneously that any time someone drops to the ground unexpectedly, they are under sniper attack. Two squad members quickly seize their leader’s tactical vest, dragging him with the column.
"Where are we going to?" prompts Hutt.
Capt. Robert Shane Gwaltney, a student, moves quickly, as TSgt. John Gray, an instructor with the 421st Combat Training Squadron, shouts out some guidance.
Through the morning, the airmen are taught to return fire, take cover, and quickly get out of the sniper’s sight. At the rear, one of the airmen throws a smoke grenade to mask the group’s movement, but the squad breaks into a run charging directly up the same line of advance. About 500 feet farther on, with the smoke screen behind and no indication of the sniper’s true location, another airman is picked off.
"Out in the road is not the answer," Hutt reiterates patiently, letting the unfolding scenario sink in. It’s an understandable mistake, and one the instructors expect. Attempting to outrun the shooter, the squad has inadvertently run to a wide open area.
Hutt calls the group together, ending the exercise, for a debrief.
"Initially, you guys took a casualty. You didn’t hear the shot—you assumed sniper, which is good," he said. However, "the longer you guys go, ... staying in his field of view, he’s going to continue to make casualties—that’s just how it is," explained the former marine sniper.
"You want to move with a purpose—when you’re moving, you need to know where you’re going," he added. With two intense tours in Iraq under his belt, Hutt is a reassuring source of firsthand expertise, and the squad clearly takes his critique seriously.
Over the first two days of CAST, trainees focus on defensive combat tactics—basic skills.
"We do ambush, we do sniper, we do indirect fire, which is taking mortar rounds, how they need to react to that," listed Korpak. "We’ll strategically place the squad somewhere on the range and have them on a mission and end up getting hit," he illustrated.
The airmen break into groups, rotating through a variety of course modules for the remainder of the course, culminating in a schoolwide field training exercise. Rotations include urban operations, IED recognition and response, combat first aid, combat marksmanship, land-navigation, and "mounted" convoy operations. These serve as a more advanced introduction to mission-specific skills.
In the final FTX, airmen are given scenarios that force them to combine skills in a realistically unpredictable scenario. As students move through the rotations, "you do see a huge improvement from now until [the] final FTX," observed Korpak.
"We try to incorporate tactics into just about everything we do, whether it’s mounted operations, urban terrain, [or] marksmanship; we’re trying to create a learning environment so that by the time FTX comes along, we shouldn’t have to tell them anything at all. They should know … exactly what they need to do" when they come under fire.
Brig. Gen. William Bender (left), Expeditionary Center commander, is greeted by CMSgt. John Gallo at Pope AFB, N.C., while visiting a medevac training unit. Bender said the 12-day CAST course provides just enough immersion into the combat environment.
Measure of Success
This is the crux of what CAST aims to achieve. "We almost put them in a worst-case scenario—a convoy getting hit. We hope it never happens to them, but [we teach them] how to react if it does," summed up TSgt. Troy Colen, a CAST training instructor and veteran of deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The real measure of success, however, comes downrange. Are airmen making it home alive because of their training, or not?
"That gets to that point about giving them confidence to go out and do what we’re asking them to do," said Bender.
"Over and over again, we get great feedback from folks coming home saying, ‘If it weren’t for the training you gave me, I would not have been able to react to the situation or would not have felt as safe as I did.’ "
The expeditionary center has several channels for gathering feedback, including the 422nd Joint Tactics Squadron, which is solely dedicated to rapidly gathering, analyzing, and implementing lessons learned in the field. However, the testimony of individual airmen is often the most compelling.
Case in point: Traveling in a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle from Camp Victory, Iraq, to Baghdad’s "Green Zone" in August 2009, Capt. Wendy Kosek was struck by an armor-penetrating IED. The blast tore through the vehicle, peppering her with shrapnel.
"I remember seeing red and white, and I knew there was something really wrong with my leg," recalled Kosek. "I was trying to stay really calm. I didn’t really feel anything."
Deploying as a legal officer from the 19th Airlift Wing, Little Rock AFB, Ark., Kosek was lucky enough to have received Advanced Contingency Skills Training—the predecessor of CAST.
"The training we received saved my [life], and my teammates’ lives," said Kosek. "It’s important, because you don’t want to be in that situation [for] the first time when you’re deployed, when you have no idea what your enemy’s going to throw at you." As a result of her training, Kosek was collected even as the vehicle filled with smoke.
She assessed her situation and decided "from a military standpoint, I knew that we would need to exit." She relied on her teammates’ training to pull her to safety. Despite a shattered portion of her tibia and femur, and a chunk of shrapnel lodged behind her kneecap, Kosek survived.
With this mission in mind, CAST is continually evolving to incorporate lessons learned in theater. Through the joint tactics squadron, "it’s very common here to change a portion of the curriculum … from one class to the next," Bender said. "And it’s just that fast. ... It’s a strength of the expeditionary center that we’re very responsive to tactics and can change curriculum on a dime."
For example, given the MRAP vehicle’s high center of gravity and frequent rollovers in theater, the center recently incorporated a new MRAP rollover module into the curriculum. It is difficult to exit a damaged armored vehicle under fire, injured, and with equipment, and this training too may also save lives downrange.
"I think there’s a tacit recognition [that] how we’ve operated as an Air Force in Iraq and again in Afghanistan is an enduring mission," Bender observed, "and in some cases [is] a growing mission." The challenge going forward will be to "formalize" expeditionary training’s place in the Air Force psyche, he said.
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