Contingency Skills Training bolsters Airman's abilities in combat environments

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Allen
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
There was no hiding from my first convoy experience. Tagged as convoy commander for a five-vehicle movement through unfamiliar terrain, the lives and welfare of 19 Airmen hung on my ability to react quickly and think on my feet. Was I ready? What would we encounter? How many of my squad would I lose on this mission? Would I be the one not coming home?

This was my reality - one of my simulated realities, that is, during my 10 days at the Air Force Expeditionary Center's Advanced Contingency Skills Training course.

Located at Fort Dix, N.J., the Center educates and trains expeditionary combat support personnel in deployed operations. The course was taught by instructors from the 421st Combat Training Squadron's Expeditionary Operations School, and included classes on squad tactics, convoy operations, military operations in urban terrain and self defense, to name a few. It was designed as a crash course in survival for any deployed situation ... and it's got to be the best thing for a deploying Airman since the MREs became tasty.

The training
The training was different from anything I've experienced in my 16-plus years as an Airman - a welcome change considering the state of affairs in the AOR and my looming summer deployment. In my previous three tours to Southwest Asia, I performed duties which didn't require this skill set, or so I thought at the time. Looking back, the danger I faced during those tours was very real, and it's scary how naive I was.

The training I received at Fort Dix was serious, as are the situations Airmen are now asked to enter - situations unlike any other in our youthful service's history. Time and time again the instructor cadre repeated the mantra, "We hope you never have to use this, but if you do, you'll be prepared for what comes next." And they were right.

Should I find myself in a combatant role while deployed, I'm definitely better off for wartime responsibilities than before I attended. I trained with deploying personnel from Air Mobility Command and Air Force-wide deployers from the Public Affairs, Chaplain, Judge Advocate General and Air Transportation career fields in the largest ACST class ever to hit the Jersey ranges. We worked hard day and night to ensure we all deploy and come home in the same condition we left. As the other 293 individuals who attended ACST Class 07-2b would probably agree, completion of the course in no way makes anyone an expert. I'm just more ready to react to a bad situation.

What I learned
I learned a lot. The first thing I learned was that I knew very little about surviving in a combat environment. If you want to reread the last sentence slowly, you'll find I'm basically calling myself out for being unprepared. Is it my fault? Maybe, but sometimes you don't know what you don't know... and this was one of those cases. The instructors were very good, however, and the lessons built upon one another from day to day, reinforcing the old adage "Practice makes perfect." I don't know if I'm perfect, but I'm about 1000 percent better than I was.

I realized there's nothing about firing an M-16 at the range that can prepare you for providing rear cover during a patrol that comes under fire, except maybe how to reload or clear a weapon jam (a task considerably more difficult when ground burst simulators and smoke grenades are going off 30 meters from your prone position.) But I learned how to work in that capacity and two weeks later I still have bruises from bumping into obstacles, trees and people while running backward to prove it.

I also learned there's nothing about applying a splint in a self aid and buddy care class that comes close to the reactionary first aid necessary after an attack in the field. If you're not familiar with that concept, it's when you have to pull, shove or toss a fellow fire team member on a litter and low crawl that person underneath barbed wire, or move them over a raised obstacle, in order to get your squad to safety, and then you can tend to the injuries more intently. I survived that training, too, and I have the scratches, rips and aching muscles to remind me of the ordeal.

And I learned that no matter what situation you find yourself in, the ultimate decision to squeeze the trigger and put down an enemy is yours and yours alone. There were some in the training whose idea of laying down suppressing fire toward a tree line meant squeezing off two or three rounds. I was with others who felt handing full magazines of ammunition to another team member for use was the best means of employing proactive force in a hostile environment. And then there were those like me, who figured if the Air Force finds it cost effective to give me 120 rounds per training exercise, I should be sending 120 rounds downrange.

Don't get me wrong ... I know I was firing blank rounds at people wearing MILES gear, or sim rounds at opposing forces geared up like paintball warriors. But at no point in time did I feel hesitation in my role there. I yelled, fired my weapon, low crawled... yelled some more, fired some more, jumped, climbed, fired that weapon, pushed, ran, pulled, fired the weapon until I thought the barrel was going to melt, cursed, ran, fell and throttled down when the exercise was terminated ... then washed, rinsed and repeated. All for good reason - I was training to come back home in one piece. Survival in combat is essential... let the other guy die for his country. I'm going to stay alive and help win this war one interview, story or bullet at a time.

Convoy results
So how did this Public Affairs professional fare in his first convoy leadership experience? I was in the second Humvee, and our lead vehicle took an IED hit (simulated, of course ... but those simulations are something else.) We pulled up, moved all personnel out of the disabled vehicle and moved on. Proper planning led to excellent execution - we'd already determined the new lead vehicle should we run into a similar situation. Humvee Three moved into the lead as planned, we motored on and returned to base with all 19 Airmen safe and sound. I had an excellent fire team, and incredible squad and it took a complete team effort to pull off. Not too shabby for a pencil pusher and a group only working together for a few days, if I do say so myself.

Although I went in to the training considering myself a seasoned veteran when it comes to contingency operations, I left it as a combat trained Airman. I can't believe what I didn't know about survival in a combat zone, and I'm incredibly thankful I have some sort of grasp on what I might run into during my deployment. My utmost appreciation goes out to the staff and cadre at the Air Force Expeditionary Center for providing the knowledge and skills necessary to bring Airman such as myself home safely to their families. We can only hope the training we received never needs to be used. But if it does ...