Fort Dix grinds combat mindset into Airmen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Russell Wicke
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs
I just returned from a training course where two people suffered concussions, one person dislocated his shoulder and one broke his hip - all in a two-week period.

This is not a commentary about safety. I'm in the final stages of prep before deploying to Iraq, and now, Advanced Combat Skills Training is an Air Force requirement. Our training was done at Fort Dix, N.J., (but the Air Force sends Airmen to other places for this course as well). The training was how I imagine Army life is like. For example, I shared quarters with 11 other Airmen. It smelled bad.

I realized sharing a room with multiple people is a small sign of what's ahead (and I'm not talking about odor). The Air Force is changing, and this course is a witness to that reality. For 14 days I carried an M-16 with me everywhere - even when I slept. I learned how to take a building by force and secure it as a defensive position. I learned how to separate a person's neck from their spine and I learned how to attack the most sensitive parts of the body. I also learned how to respond to direct and indirect fire. I learned details about convoy operations, night operations and first aid while under fire. Furthermore, I'm now familiar with the appearance of improvised explosive devices.

Make no mistake, this course was demanding. There was no time off and limited hot meals. The average day exceeded a physically demanding 12 hours. Unfit people suffered. I witnessed pulled muscles, exhaustion and multiple injuries - one Airman dislocated his shoulder by breaking down a door. I also witnessed bravery and fortitude among much of our younger and older Airmen. Of course, there was also unprecedented whining from a few others (not on my fire team).

One of the most valuable lessons, to me, was training in sim-munitions. I confess I used a few expletives when I was shot. The sim-munitions are like hyper paintballs. They use gun powder to propel plastic bullets from a 9mm-like casing. The plastic contains a paint/detergent mix. They travel at about 400 feet per second - and I still have the marks to prove it. The training at Fort Dix used sim-munitions to train us how to clear a building. It consisted mostly of close-range suburban fire fights.

Yes, these are signs the Air Force is changing, and if you don't start taking your PT seriously, a time is coming when you won't fit in. In other words, you won't be taken seriously. The U.S. Army and Marines aren't facing terrorists alone anymore. Airmen are now putting boots down right beside them, and in some cases, in front of them. This is serious. It's more than being able to save your own hide in the desert sand. If exhaustion takes you down at war before the AK-47 does, other people will die too.

Until now, the Air Force has engrained in me a mindset of air-base defense. I remember seeing people get winded from checking M8 tape after a mock attack during exercises. Now, we're being taught aggressive fighting maneuvers like infantry wedge formations. Instead of running from an attack, this class teaches us how to advance on it and neutralize the threat. This exhilarated me. I remember during the ground tactics portion of the training when simulated artillery rounds exploded near us. It compressed my chest and drove grit in my face. After diving for cover, my four-man fire team was ordered to advance and kill - a much different mind set I'm used to. We moved right and circled around to flank. This event, even in training, was nerve-wracking. The adrenaline monkey was on my back, flogging me. As a result, we made some mistakes and all four of us "died." But here's the point: I learned from the mistakes we made and I learned how I respond under pressure. I died in a place where I can come back to life and try again. So if/when I face the adrenaline monkey in Iraq, it won't be so new.

I will point out that some Air Force career fields have been training hard like this a long time; security forces and RED HORSE Airmen are just two examples. Further still, we now have 30,000 Airmen deployed in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom and 8,000 are deployed in Army positions, in what's called "In Lieu of" taskings.

A good portion of those 30,000 Airmen are people with "desk jobs" like me. I'm just a print journalist working in Public Affairs; and some of my class peers were judge advocates and chaplain's assistants. All career fields are now getting this combat training. I personally feel like it's about time the Air Force trains like this. Maybe now Airmen will start getting the same respect as Soldiers and Marines.

We in the Air Force are beginning to harden, and I think it's about time.