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Contingency Skills Training prepares Airmen for deployment

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bryan Ripple
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Last summer I had the opportunity to volunteer for a deployment as part of AEF 5/6. The AFRC/PA Resource Manager at the time gave me a chance to pick from a list of about a dozen deployment locations, but one stood out to me as a place where I could really test myself--as a military journalist, and as a mentor for younger Airmen. The location I chose was Balad Air Base, Iraq. I'll be deploying there from Jan. 27 to May 27 as the superintendent of Public Affairs for the 332nd Aerospace Expeditionary Wing (AEW.)

If you follow the news from Iraq you're probably aware that a lot goes on at Balad. The base is situated in the heart of the Sunni Triangle and has the busiest runway in the Department of Defense these days with more than 27,000 air operations each month. Obviously, the Airmen who are serving their country at Balad are playing a huge role in the war on terror. We've had a some reservists from the 910th deploy there and come back already. If you have a chance, stop by and ask them what their experience was like.
A few weeks after my volunteer application was accepted, I received an E-mail telling me to prepare to go to Fort Dix, N.J. for two weeks of Contingency Skills Training, a.k.a. combat skills training. My first reaction to that was to say "what are they sending me to that training for? I'm not a soldier!" We made a couple phone calls just to make sure I was supposed to be on the attendance list. After confirming the validity of the message, I set forth to gather all the equipment I was told to bring with me. Neat stuff like a set of Individual Body Armor (IBA). If you want a good workout, try running around with a set of IBA on for a while.

When I arrived at the Air Mobility Warfare Center at Fort Dix I discovered I was going to be attending [surviving] the course with about 110 other people from the active duty and Reserve Components of the Air Force in AFSCs like JAG officers and paralegals, chaplains and chaplains assistants, financial management people, combat camera personnel, and of course, about 25 Public Affairs officers and specialists. A great thing about the course was that it gave me a chance to meet the other four people I will be deploying to the 332 AEW/PA Office with.

Our class had a very knowledgeable group of instructors on the CADRE team, each one an expert in his or her chosen career field. I have to give a big Hooah! to Air Force Staff Sgt. Dan Williamson, our CADRE team leader for my squad, Bravo-One. Sergeant Williamson is a Security Forces Airman and has seen battle in Afghanistan. He had to take the 14 of us and teach us how to be a fire team in order to stay alive in a tactical environment. Some of the officers on my squad had never even touched an M-16 before since they mainly fire the M-9 handgun.

Of course our first field training day included a driving rain storm that lasted most of the day. In the Army they say "If it ain't rainin, you ain't trainin." As luck would have it, our first tactical exercises included a segment about how to properly low-crawl while wearing all your gear and carrying your weapon. We quickly learned just how small of a target you can make your body as you crawl flatly across the ground toward cover. As we slithered through the grass and mud like snakes with the ever-encouraging Sergeant Williamson right alongside us, the somewhat unpleasant clatter of an AK-47 began to break the serenity of the rain pouring down upon us. I can confirm what Clint Eastwood said in the movie Heartbreak Ridge when he told his Marines that this weapon makes a distinctive sound when fired upon you. It certainly does. After some scattered machine gun fire, the bad guys, or OPFOR, as they were called, decided to throw in some grenade simulators and colored smoke canisters just for good measure.

After learning the low-crawl, we learned how to do the rush and roll and other tactical movements as we proceeded as a fire team through the various training simulations the CADRE put together. Short of actually shooting us with real bullets, the staff did a thorough job in helping us feel the stress of war. It's interesting to find out how you'll react to situations when that adrenaline monkey is on your back riding you for all you're worth.

Tactical movement in a hostile environment is an art in itself. After going through this training, I think I could hide behind my ballpoint pen if I had to. We learned about the importance of "Violence of Action," which means putting some serious firepower down on the enemy.

We also had a couple days where we learned the art of what's called "Close Quarters Battle, or CQB." This is where you have to overtake a structure, room by room, and keep the building secure while moving on to the next building if necessary, possibly through a whole village, like we had to.

During most of our tactical training, we wore Miles 2000 gear, which is an infra-red laser system that started beeping if we were hit by fire. But when we did the CQB training, we got to kick it up a few notches. The old adage "pain is an excellent teacher" was clear in our heads as we began the task of taking the first building in the village we were training in. We were issued M-4 carbines retrofitted to fire what's called simunitions, or bullets with laundry detergent tips. You could compare this to paintball times 1,000 in my book. As Bravo-One approached the first building of the village we quickly became aware there were a lot of bad guys in town. Our mission was to take the first building and hold it for 10 minutes. This was not an easy task and most of us were "dead" before the battle was over. The various welts and colorful bruises we sported shortly after the battle told the story to the next squad as they approached the village. Fun times were about to be had my friends!

We also participated in Combat First Aid Training. This was an outstanding experience as we learned how to quickly react to injuries, provide initial life-saving treatment and get our fellow Airmen off the battlefield and out of harms way. If our Miles gear started beeping, we were also casualties and therefore had to be carried along with the rest of the injured and dead. We carried a lot of people that day and muscles were sore.

Convoys in Iraq are dangerous missions without a doubt. We learned how they are planned and operated and how to take up fighting positions when the convoy is under attack. I had never driven a humvee before or manned a turret gunner's position so it was quite an experience.

The OPFOR folks hit us with everything they had in their arsenal during the last exercise. We had a mission to deliver a potable water tank to a village as part of a humanitarian convoy mission. The village had insurgents mixed in with the civilians all around as our convoy came under attack. All the skills we learned were put to the test as we fought our way to control a part of the village until backup forces could arrive.

As the sun dropped below the horizon that day the range officer terminated the exercise. Some of us had lived to fight another day. Many did not. With all the chaos, screaming, smoke, gunfire, grenades and other explosives going off, we experienced a glimpse into what war is really like--albeit during a training environment.

During the 45-minute humvee ride back to the base that evening, I sat in the back seat of our hummer with the smell of diesel fuel from our convoy and the pine trees from the surrounding forest entering our windows. It was very cold by that time, but we were so hot from the action we were actually steaming from under our protective equipment. Any clouds that were in the area moved off and it seemed we could see thousands of stars through the turret gunner position in our humvee. Even with the adrenaline monkey still in high gear, my thoughts were very clear.

I thought how thankful I was to receive the training I had experienced during those two weeks. I also thought about our brave warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan who conduct these operations nearly every day as part of their job. I have the greatest respect for them and if I'm given the chance to go "outside the wire" to tell their story, I will.

I have more confidence in myself after Contingency Skills Training. If you're thinking of volunteering to deploy to the CENTCOM AOR, the Air Mobility Warfare Center CADRE at Fort Dix will welcome your attendance too.