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The 910th’s Defenders will be ready, whatever fight tomorrow brings

  • Published
  • By Mr. Eric M. White
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

From March 19–22, the 910th Security Forces Squadron conducted a four-day super Unit Training Assembly focused on combat-readiness. This story follows the squadron through each day of the event at Camp James A. Garfield, Ohio, and Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio.

Day One

Troop arrivals, battle drills and perimeter defense

Golden rays of dawn sun break through a row of leafless trees, casting long shadows across an open field of grass, still brown from winter. A ten-or-so person group stands on a dirt road that cuts through the middle of the field. Two or three similar groups are dispersed around the clearing, the Slagle drop zone at Camp James A. Garfield in Ravenna, Ohio.

They’re garbed in camouflage fatigues and matching tactical vests. Each has an M4 carbine rifle strapped to their shoulder and an M9 service pistol holstered at their hip. A bright yellow blank-firing adapter rests at the end of each rifle barrel, marking them as training implements.

Master Sgt. Brian Cowles, a squad leader with the 910th Security Forces Squadron, addresses his group of 910th SFS members, walking them through various formations and movements. A couple of the squad members turn their heads to the east at a faint, repeating, rumble coming from beyond the trees.

As the sound intensifies, Cowles instructs his squad to go to their positions. They spread out in a wide arc toward the drop zone’s tree line, slogging through the grass, still water-logged from a winter’s worth of melted snow and yesterday’s downpours. They step strategically across the field, dodging the deepest water, knowing the trouble wet feet on a cold morning can cause later in the day. Their eyes scan the trees for movement. The other squads at Slagle do the same, forming a perimeter around the drop zone.

The rumble crescendos as an Ohio Army National Guard Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter banks low and fast over the trees to the east. It descends toward a landing pad near a group of personnel and vehicles in a staging area.

The Chinook’s ramp lowers to the ground, its two massive propellers still turning as more Air Force Reserve Airmen pour out. As soon as the last person debarks, the ramp raises and the Chinook lifts off. It circles the drop zone, then flies low and fast past the 910th SFS members as if saluting. The Ohio Army National Guard pilot waves through the flight deck window, and a moment later the Chinook disappears into the horizon beyond the trees. Its rumble echoes through the field a few moments longer.

It’s about 10:00 a.m. on Friday, March 19, 2021, and members of the 910th SFS, Defenders, have arrived at C-JAG for the first day of a four-day training event.

Maj. Nick Megyesi is the commander of the 910th Security Forces Squadron. He’s been a long-time member of the squadron, but just took command last December. Megyesi said the super-UTA weekend–a Unit Training Assembly that extends beyond the typical Saturday to Sunday timeframe–was planned in response to a new Air Force initiative: “Accelerate Change or Lose.”

“Gen. Brown (Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Chief of Staff of the Air Force) has said he wants hard, realistic training,” said Megyesi. “And Gen. Scobee (Lt. Gen. Richard W. Scobee, commander of Air Force Reserve Command) definitely made that a resounding ‘go do’ when he said, ‘Train hard and provide resilient leaders for tomorrow’s fight.’ And then you look at Col. Janik (Col. Joe Janik, 910th Airlift Wing Commander), and he says, ‘Prepare for tomorrow’s fight.’ So that’s what we’re doing.”

Divided into four groups, the more than 70 Defenders spend the next thirty minutes or so learning and practicing formations and movements before dispersing to the tree line and disappearing into the cover of the trees. Occupational Camouflage-Patterned uniforms make them nearly impossible to see from a distance.

Unlike the Chinook’s rhythmic ‘thwumps,’ the 910th Airlift Wing C-130H Hercules aircraft makes a constant droning roar as it appears beyond the trees to the east and flies low over Slagle. At first, it looks like the aircraft is flying off kilter, head-on toward the staging area, rather than the drop target a couple hundred yards away, but team members on the ground have measured wind speed and direction, and the navigator aboard the aircraft has carefully calculated where the aircraft needs to release its cargo in order for it to reach its target.

Midway above the field, a bundle of boxes slides out from the open ramp and door at the C-130’s tail, trailing a parachute. The parachute catches the air and opens, allowing the pallet to decelerate as it descends toward the middle of the drop zone near a pyramidic, yellow, fold-up air drop target. The 910th AW’s aircrews train on this type of airdrop nearly every week, as airlift is the unit’s primary mission. Their expertise is on display as, despite the heavy wind, the pallet successfully reaches its intended target.

After the pallet lands, the Defenders emerge from cover around the field, walking toward the staging area. Airmen from the 76th Aerial Port Squadron use a forklift to retrieve the bundle and bring it to the waiting troops. The squads grab Meals, Ready-to-Eat for lunch and eat a bit before splitting into two groups and boarding busses to different C-JAG training areas.

Land navigation

Cowles’ group rides to Land-Nav West, a land-based navigation course. They, along with another squad, are instructed to load their blank ammunition magazines into their M-4s and fire a test shot. Facilitators issue each group a map of the course, compass, radio, notepads and other navigation instruments. The map features a series of rally points to which each squad must navigate. The groups split off and begin charting their courses using the map and measuring tools. After determining which way to go, Cowles gives the compass to Senior Airman Evegenia Christopher, a 910th SFS fire team member, who uses it to determine the azimuth, or direction they should go to reach the rally point, then leads the group into the woods.

It doesn’t take long for the fire team’s progress to slow as they encounter thick patches of thorns and brambles surrounding the young trees. There are sections where it looks like easier paths could be found, but the group stays in a consistent heading so as not to lose their bearings and risk missing the rally point. The sun nears its zenith in a cloudless sky, but the air still has some early spring chill to it. The direct light casts harsh, broken shadows, making it easy to lose sight of squadmates in the thick growth. The group stays tight, but keeps enough distance so as to avoid providing grouped targets to possible opposing forces. The scenario is intended to simulate escape from an unknown and hostile environment, so each Airman knows they may come under enemy fire at any moment.

As they reach each rally point, the group leader hands the compass off so that others have a chance to navigate and lead. While they traipse through the woods, some of the more experienced members provide tips and stop to go over details with newer squad members, pointing out map features or giving compass tutorials. All the while, each Defender keeps eyes and ears toward their surroundings.

About an hour-and-a-half into their trek, their attentiveness proves worthwhile. Shortly after the group crosses a long access clearing, the sound of gunfire cracks through the trees.

“Contact,” a few of the members shout, followed by location details and instructions.

The fire team spreads out, M4 barrels raised toward the direction of the opposing force as they move forward quickly but with measured caution. One member spots movement in the distance and calls out that a single adversary is retreating.

The group confers for a moment and decides it’s best to press on toward the rally point rather than risk being ambushed trying to pursue the opposing force. The young, dense forest turns to older growth, with full tall trees preventing the spread of thick brush. This provides greater visibility and ease of movement, so the squad makes good progress toward the final rally point.

After cautiously crossing a wide glade, the group nears the final rally point and course exit when an explosion and gunfire erupts to their rear. The “contact” calls sound out again as someone spots opposing forces on the far side of the glade. They decide to retreat into the tree cover and move for a flank rather than charging the opposing force through open space. Green smoke curls through the trees near the enemy, the product of smoke emitters used to create realism in the scenario. The air smells faintly of fireworks.

While Cowles’ group moves cautiously through the brush, the second squad of land-nav course participants emerges from across the glade cattycorner to where the opposing forces were spotted a few minutes earlier. They’re aware of the enemy and attempting to advance on their position. The newly emerged squad stops, crouching low in some growth in the glade after a member calls out that there are others amid the trees across from them. There’s a tense moment of uncertainty before the second squad realizes they’ve run abreast of the other land-nav team.

An Airman in the second squad recognizes his fellow Defenders and calls out, “friendlies, they’re friendly on the left.”

A moment later, at the shouted commands of fire team leaders, the entire second squad is reorienting, fanned out across the glade and into the nearby trees, advancing hard against their adversaries. Cowles’ group is there to provide flanking support and covering fire. After chasing off the opposing forces, each group rallies and presses on toward their final navigation point, leading them to a road that brings them back to where they started.

This type of training is not possible on the limited acreage of Youngstown Air Reserve Station, making C-JAG a valuable training partner.

“They have a host of facilities out here that absolutely complement the Defenders and what we need to train for our mission,” said Megyesi. “They’ve been gracious enough to allow us to come out here and use these training grounds. They have 22,000 acres here, which allows us to do hard realistic training that we can’t do in other locations. They’ve been instrumental as joint partners.”

The rest of the training day takes a less strenuous but no less important turn as the Defenders head to one of C-JAG’s firing ranges to zero their rifles. This live-fire exercise provides an opportunity to tune rifle sights and refine aiming for what awaits on the second day of training.

Day 2

Firing range

The 910th SFS spends the second day of the four-day training weekend honing an essential Defender skill: marksmanship. Cowles’ fire team begins at a full-distance pop-up target range, one of C-JAG’s many firing ranges that provide environments for a wide-variety of weapons training.

Under the careful watch of combat arms maintenance and training instructors, the trainees climb stairs up a small embankment. In front of them, the sun illuminates a long, broad clearing with staggered mounds spreading out and back approximately 300 yards to a dense plot of trees. Loudspeakers dispersed across the firing platform carry instructions from facilitators housed in a control tower behind the shooters.

“Shooters, please ensure you have hearing and eye protection in place,” the loud speakers sound, relaying instructions from the control tower. “Once you do, go ahead and lay down behind your weapon.”

The Defenders do as instructed.

“Alright, as soon as they pop up, just start taking em out” one of the CATM instructors advises his student. “All of them are gonna come up. As soon as you hit one, it will go down, so move on to the next one.”

Metallic clinks sound across the firing platforms as Airmen insert magazines and pull back rifle bolts, chambering rounds.

“Be ready, pay attention to your equipment,” another CATM instructor tells his student.

“Line is ready. Fire,” the loudspeakers sound.

Six silhouettes in bright orange or yellow pop up at increasing distances from each shooter. Gunfire erupts from the firing platform like a string of firecrackers. The silhouettes, reactive targets, begin to fall as each shooter works their way through the exercise, eventually aiming the length of the range at the last target, 300 yards away.

For the next hour or so, the Defenders repeat the exercise and similar ones, gaining muscle memory and familiarization with their weapons. All the while, the CATM instructors, experts in their field, offer feedback and coaching.

Chief Master Sgt. James Hettinger, the 22nd Air Force security forces manager, attended the first two days of the training event at Megyesi's invitation. At the firing range, the pair observe the training and take turns honing their own skills.

“It helps to remind me of what we need to be doing, what we need to train on consistently, where the funds get spent,” said Hettinger, while observing the firing range activities. “When people ask for updated or new equipment, you see the purpose behind it, you refamiliarize yourself with how it’s used and the day-to-day wear-and-tear it takes.”

After the exercises at the full-distance range, the group heads to a pop-up target pistol range for similar drills. At the pistol range, each shooter is assigned an instructor who helps walk them through the drills. This scenario more closely resembles engagements the 910th SFS members might encounter in law enforcement duties. They stand behind a barricade, similar to a cruiser door, and have to react quickly as targets pop up, drawing their weapon, chambering a round and firing accurately.  

The second day of training is not as rigorous as the first, but the skills the Defenders hone are essential to their work and can help save their own lives, or those of fellow service members or bystanders.

Day 3

Survival skills

Master Sgt. Zachariah Angel is a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist assigned to the 910th Operations Support Squadron. Through weeks spent in varied rugged environments with minimal equipment, Angel has become an expert in his field. He serves full-time with the 910th Airlift Wing in order to develop Airmen who are resilient in and prepared for the most hostile and dangerous environments.

As the Defenders arrive in the woods of C-JAG for the start of their third day of training, Angel stands on a stone platform, holding an axe at his side in a ruggedly-gloved hand. His expertise is marked by a SERE patch on the left sleeve of his uniform. In front of him, survival kit implements are arranged on large paper maps. Tech. Sgt. Andrew Trumbull and Tech. Sgt. Justin Kelly, both fire team leaders with the 910th SFS and survival experts in their own right, are nearby to assist Angel.

After introductions, Trumbull and Kelly take the students to a nearby area where they’ve begun constructing a lean-to wilderness shelter while Angel preps a canopy shelter for later demonstration.

Trumbull and Kelly have a long, narrow log propped in the nook of a split tree trunk. Down the length of one side of the log, they've leaned branches at an angle toward the ground, providing a makeshift canopy. Trumbull begins placing supple pine branches on the ground beneath the lean-to. He explains to the group that the branches provide insulation from the ground, offering extra warmth.

The instructors work together to weave more pine branches into the canopy for extra shelter from the elements. They work intentionally and methodically, forming a close-knit cover without compromising the structure’s integrity.

“You’re probably thinking, ‘it’s really slow.’ It is,” Trumbull tells the group. “It’s not like TV, oddly enough.”

His tone is thick with sarcasm as if to say that this training is much more authentic than what his students might have seen elsewhere.

The pair makes sure their group understands that doing this job correctly takes time, but spending that time is far better than the harm that can come from a poor shelter in bad weather.

After the lean-to construction, Angel gives a tutorial on building a canopy shelter better-suited for staying dry in warm environments. He uses parachute cord and tarp or parachute canvas. He strings a length of cord between two trees, demonstrating knots that hold the shelter securely without being too difficult to release quickly if needed. He drapes a camouflage tarp over the suspended cord, then chisels tent stakes from branches using his axe.

After demonstrating another knot, he cautions the Defenders that these skills take practice to develop.

“Listen, I’m going to show you all this, but it’s not something I expect you to learn day one,” Angel says. “But it is something I think everyone should learn.”

As he constructs the rest of the shelter, he points out less obvious but critical details like the direction the opening of the shelter should face in relation to the wind.

The rest of their morning is spent learning how to prepare, start and preserve a fire, even in wet conditions, and how to maintain and use survival equipment. The session maintains a calm pace but is packed with valuable information. Afterward, the group eats lunch, providing energy for the much more strenuous afternoon activities.

As the group leaves the woods to head to the next training area, it has warmed up some, and the sun is bright on a clear day. They arrive at a tall wooden tower in a field. “C-JAG” is stenciled on the tower’s face in bold, black letters. Several people stand atop the tower in harnesses and helmets, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. A couple more stand at the base of the tower where it meets a rubber pad. The personnel on and around the tower are members of the 910th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department, and they’ll spend the next couple of hours instructing the Defenders on rappelling techniques and giving them experience safely descending the tower.

At the top of the tower, an Airman rigged to rappel steps backward cautiously toward the ledge. His steps are small, hesitant, but he straightens with more confidence as the rope connected to his harness tightens. Feet firmly planted on the edge, he leans back as the tower team slowly lets out the rope. A moment later, he’s suspended horizontally, feet planted on the wall as though he’s standing upright on its vertical surface.

With slow steps he begins his descent as the rappelling instructors lower the rope, easing him toward the ground. Maintaining control and a good foot planting means an easier passage to the ground with fewer bumps and bruises. It also eases the weight on the team maintaining the descent from above.

Halfway down the tower, a shout instructs him to begin jumping. He pushes off of the tower with his legs and swings outward as the rope lowers him a full body length. His feet reconnect with the wall and he jumps again. This speeds the process up handily, and a moment later his back softly touches the ground where Tech. Sgt. Tim Wertz, one of the fire department instructors, helps him up and disconnects his rigging.

The tower stays active until each student has had a chance to rappel.

Through the remainder of the afternoon, the squad runs through a leadership confidence course, testing their ability to communicate, follow commands, lead and problem solve while tackling obstacles. One such obstacle proves physically and mentally exhausting.

The group has a long, heavy log. Their goal is to get each group member and the log over a wall that’s a few feet taller than head height without any group member touching the ground, then use the log to traverse to an opposing platform.

Initial confidence is followed by the realization that it’s much harder than it looks. Getting group members over the wall is easy enough, but once the last member is on the wall, the participants realize how challenging it is to get enough leverage from the end of a long pillar of wood. As attempts fail, the team continues working together, searching for a solution.  

That’s one of multiple obstacles on the course that provide the Defenders the opportunity to test their resolve and ability to overcome high-stress situations as a team. It’s unlikely they’ll ever need to perform the log lift exercise in their duties, but the course is more about critical soft-skill development than the actual tasks.

Their training day concludes with combat lifesaver skills training facilitated by John Lewis, the 910th’s fire chief, and other fire department personnel. They cover skills, like tourniquet application, that every Defender needs but hopes they’ll never have to use.

After a bus ride back to Youngstown Air Reserve Station, the 910th SFS members turn in their weapons and enjoy a well-earned dinner before retiring in preparation for the final day of training.

Day Four

Use of Force and Weapon Cleaning

Day three was physically strenuous, and it shows on the Defenders’ faces, but they remain locked in.

It’s Monday, March 22. The fire team starts the day in the combatives room, a new facility at Youngstown Air Reserve Station. The large room has padded floors throughout and movable partitions that can be rearranged to form separate rooms. The walls are arranged to form a square room in a corner of the facility, approximately 20’ by 20’ with a door-sized entrance.

Within, Tech. Sgt. Andrew Gilmore and Senior Airman Sean Kelty, fire team members with the 910th SFS, are dressed head-to-toe in protective red pads, red man suits.

Tech. Sgt. James Roe, also a 910th SFS fire team member, is talking quietly with Kelty and Gilmore.

“Let’s do the drug deal scenario for this one,” Roe says.

They discuss the plan, deciding that Kelty will be the main instigator, acting aggressively with the responding security forces members, while Gilmore portrays a bystander who records the encounter on his cell phone. Roe will stand away from the action a bit, but will have a training firearm tucked into his belt to test the responders’ observation and reactions.

With the plan in place, Roe and Gilmore begin a staged argument over payment, raising their voices and acting out frantic and aggressive gestures. Senior Airman Jennifer Salazar and Senior Airman Anthony Piper are the 910th SFS responding officer trainees.

Salazar and Piper enter the room and Gilmore breaks off the argument to explain the situation to the officers. They’re wearing protective helmets and carrying training side arms and padded batons. The scene erupts somewhat chaotically as the responders interact with a very aggressive Kelty. Gilmore is nearby holding his cell phone camera toward the responders.

Kelty lightly pushes Salazar who shoves him and assertively tells him to step back and not touch her. The officers are responding appropriately, given Kelty’s aggression, but Gilmore adds tension to the situation by repeating that the video’s going viral and everyone is going to see the altercation. Each of the trainers are seasoned law enforcement officers and know that added stressors will help make the scenario as realistic as possible for Salazar and Piper.

Roe is standing off to the side, rocking side-to-side as if agitated, and scowling at Kelty, eyes tracking his every move. As the responders try to relocate the bystander from harm’s way and calm down Kelty, Roe moves quickly toward the center of the room, drawing his training firearm and pointing it at Kelty.

In an instant, Piper has his training firearm drawn and pointed at Gilmore.

“Drop your weapon, drop your weapon,” Piper shouts.

Gilmore hesitates only for a moment before dropping his gun.

Because the scenario has elevated to the possibility of deadly force being directed at the officers or bystanders, Salazar has also drawn her training service pistol.

Gilmore and Salazar take control of the situation and simulate arrests.

With the scenario in hand, the trainers and the trainees gather in the middle of the room to discuss what went well and what didn’t. The more experienced Defenders guide the newer team members, at times relating their real-world encounters.

The training is designed and facilitated in such a way that the responders develop a sense of when use of force is authorized and necessary, and to what degree it should be used, but in a controlled environment without real consequence.

Prepping for the Fight

The final event of the four-day training weekend is markedly different from the high-adrenaline activities the Defenders have been participating in. In a room within the security forces building at YARS, Airmen sit at rows of tables in various stages of dismantling and cleaning their M4 rifles.

The room is filled with the sounds of brushes on metal and general chatter. It seems inconsequential in light of some of the heavy, life-or-death scenario training they’ve been entrenched in for four days, but the pertinence of their work remains.

Without proper cleaning and maintenance, they risk their rifles not working properly when needed. A jam in the middle of a firefight can cost lives. Likewise, without regular practice and use of essential skills, the 910th’s Defenders risk critical failure when most needed. The super UTA was designed to ensure those skills remain sharp and trustworthy in any circumstance.

In his Accelerate Change or Lose paper, Gen. Brown said, “Our Air Force must accelerate change to control and exploit the air domain to the standard the Nation expects and requires from us. If we don’t change – if we fail to adapt – we risk losing the certainty with which we have defended our national interests for decades. We risk losing a high-end fight. We risk losing quality Airmen, our credibility, and our ability to secure our future. We must move with a purpose – we must Accelerate Change or Lose…”

For four days, from March­ 19­‑22, the 910th Security Forces Squadron took one of the first giant steps to do just that.