ILO: Airmen have it tough; Army has it tougher

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Brian S. Orban
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office
Editor's note: Sergeant Orban, 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office superintendent, is currently on a six-month In-Lieu-Of deployment to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Shouts of "IED! IED!" broke the prolonged silence as Airmen in my armored convoy sprung into action. The seatbelt pulled taught against my ballistic vest as the vehicles screeched to an unpleasant halt while the convoy commander requested confirmation from the lead vehicle.

"Pirate One, this is Six. What've you got?" the captain asked the HUMVEE crew several meters ahead.


"Contact right! Contact right," the lead truck commander shouted into his radio as automatic weapons fire followed the explosion from the roadside bomb. Chatter blared over the vehicle's radio speaker as the team sought out muzzle flashes to pinpoint the enemy's position. With multiple weapons blazing, the Air Force team overwhelmed the outnumbered insurgents, ending the ambush in mere seconds.

"Convoy Three, this is Apache Base. Proceed forward 100 meters down the road and dismount for a hot wash," the instructor said over the radio.

The results were not too shabby. We met most of the training objectives, but there was, naturally, room for improvement. With our adrenaline still pumping, we mounted up and headed down the road wondering what other nasty surprises awaited us.

The mock ambush culminated a month-long combat skills training, or CST, course at Fort Sill, Okla. Hosted by the Army, it exposed 64 Airmen representing roughly 50 career fields to life in today's deployed environment. It's a requirement for Air Force personnel deploying to support the Army's in-lieu-of missions, commonly referred to as ILOs. We were among the hundreds of Air Force and Navy troops slated to fill these posts. Why? The Army simply can't fill all of them as its forces remain stretched across the Middle East rooting out terrorists across Iraq and Afghanistan.

Training up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, we learned combat skills to keep us alive in an "everything just went wrong" scenario. Classroom discussions included advanced combat lifesaving techniques and troop leading procedures. Outdoor courses featured advanced small arms handling and qualification, convoy movement and tactics, current techniques to identify improvised explosive devices and close-quarters combat drills using live ammo.

The training was like nothing I'd ever seen in my 23 years of Air Force service. It made Warrior Week during basic training look like a stroll down Sesame Street. Soldiers fresh from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan taught the classes, using personal examples to drive their points. They were the subject matter experts. They shared the latest information available on enemy tactics.

Realism was the order of the day. Armored vehicles took us from Point A to Point B, and the uniform of the day included full "battle rattle" -- Kevlar helmets, rucksacks and advanced bullet-proof vests. Things never went as planned. Things blew up. Vehicles broke down as "bad guys" attacked. Friendly "locals" waving to us on the side of the road one day lulled us into ambushes the next. We got shot at a lot (with blanks naturally), and we fired back. Our folks were "wounded," and we had to treat them on the fly and call in the cavalry.

We made mistakes and learned from them ... quickly. On occasion, we actually surprised our instructors, showing them how fast Airmen can learn, apply and adapt. That's how we surprised and captured a group of "insurgents" -- something definitely not on the lesson plan but probably our proudest moment.

When the classes ended late each night, we were hot, sweaty and didn't smell too well. If you didn't like it - too bad!

During our graduation ceremony, I took a moment to think back on the past four weeks and how it changed each of us. We were tougher, more confident and ready to go. It also helped me appreciate the type of training our Army brethren go through every day, especially in the final days before they deploy. I had the opportunity for a brief exposure to their world, and in turn they got to see part of mine.

The Air Force team has it tough in today's high operations tempo environment. The Army has it much tougher. They'll do this for a living for the next 15 months.