Air Force combat controllers "rockin' on the mike," making things happen
Most of us know very little about our Air Force special operations forces. Many don't even realize that our Air Forces have embraced the "every Airman is a warrior" culture, with many from its ranks fighting on the ground. On April 11, 2006, Technical Sergeant Bradley "Brad" Reilly, USAF, received the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions during a four hour fire-fight on the ground in Afghanistan the previous year. He was an USAF combat controller and, more important, an integrated member of an Army special forces alpha team inserted by Army helicopters and ultimately saved by Army helicopters, after dealing the enemy a lethal blow. We'll use his story to tell several others and to demonstrate yet again the intense courage of our fighting forces.
August 6, 2006
We want to introduce you to Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Bradley "Brad" T. Reilly, United States Air Force (USAF). He recently received the Silver Star and Purple Heart for exceptional valor in ground combat on April 11, 2005 in Afghanistan. The USAF is best known for its operations in the air and in space, but more and more its men and women are operating as combatants on the ground. We will use Reilly's story to tell some of that story.
We will also use TSgt Reilly's story to introduce you to the kind of men he worked with on April 11, 2005. As you will see, he was part of a team, mostly Army, mostly special forces, some aviators, all gallant men serving their country, doing their duty, often beyond the call.
Air Force trainees assemble to listen to a critique from their military training instructors at the Scorpion's Nest, the encampment on base where they learn the rudiments of life in the field. Photo credit: MSgt Brian Nickey, USAF. Presented by about.com
Before moving ahead, we need to spend a moment on how our Air Force, your Air Force is changing. The USAF is our youngest military service, and frankly, its leaders are still working to cultivate a culture that fits the requirement for them to assure we dominate what Colonel Robert R. Tovado calls the aerospace domain. Part of the aerospace domain is on the ground, a point not previously understood well by many, including airmen.
Tovado says it in a nutshell:
"We must be airmen foremost. Airmen are warriors, not technical specialists."
Colonel Gina Grosso, in charge of basic trainees at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, says recruits must leave their training with a "warrior first" mentality. Technical Sergeant Tim Bruton, a basic training "TI," training instructor, says the "changes (at basic training will) instill the 'warrior ethos' in airmen."
A Marine says he's a Marine. An Army troops says he's a soldier. A navy swab says he's a sailor. An airman has traditionally said he's a F-16 mechanic. No more. He and she will respond, "I'm an Airman," and by that he and she will mean they are warriors just like the others.
On April 11, 2005, Reilly was assigned to the 23rd USAF Special Tactics Squadron (STS), in turn assigned to Operational Detachment Alpha 163 (Army Special Forces Team), Advanced Operational Base 160, Forward Operational Base 12, the Combined Joint (multiple countries, multiple services) Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom VI. That's a mouthful, even for old time vets. Let's try to dissect as much of it as we can.
Let's start with learning about USAF combat controllers, or CCTs. By definition, they are ground combat forces. They are assigned to Special Tactics Squadrons within the USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
An USAF CCT working with local militia in Afghanistan. Presented by Military Photos.
Their job is to get into combat and non-permissive environments by whatever means are available, establish assault zones, provide air traffic control, fire support, command and control communications, and whatever airmanship skills are required to rapidly establish and control the air-ground interface. They also help control special operations attacks and remove obstacles through demolition, and conduct terminal attack control operations. Terminal attack control translates to having the authority to control the maneuver of and grant weapons release clearance to attacking aircraft, known in the past as ground forward air control (FAC).
“I can get to work in any manner — jumping, diving, walking, vehicle, boat or submarine ... When we get to work, our job is to talk on the radio and make things happen ... We’re an air-to-ground interface, a conduit of information that ties the ground to the air operationally.”
An USAF CCT with Afghan militia calling in and coordinating air attacks. Presented by Military Photos.
They survey and assess assault zones, establish and control landing and drop zones no matter what the environment, set up and operate forward area refueling and rearming points, establish and manage casualty collection, triage and evacuation sites, and conduct terminal attack control.
Airman 1st Class Michael Warner, a combat controller from the 1722nd Combat Control Squadron, drives an all-terrain vehicle down a trail during a joint Army Reserve/Air Force Reserve exercise in July 1988. Presented by USAF Combat Control.com
Colonel Michael Sneeder has said in the past:
"I can put a guy on a motorcycle, and he can pull portable lights out of his rucksack, shortly after landing at the location, to mark a runway."
Within a short time thereafter, where there's a marked runway, there's air traffic, long before the mobile air traffic control unit gets there.
The 23rd is one of five STSs assigned to the 720th Special Tactics Group in the US. Four of these are regular Air Force, one assigned to Hurlburt, one assigned to McChord AFB, Washington, two assigned to Polk AFB, North Carolina. One STS, the 123rd STS, is from the Kentucky Air National Guard out of Louisville at Standiford Field. The 10th Combat Weather Squadron at Hurlburt also belongs to the 720th. All together, there are about 800 people assigned to the 720th. Overseas, the group has management responsibilities for the 320th STS at Kadena Air Base (AB), Okinawa, Japan, and the 321st at RAF Mildenhall, England, both of which fall under the operational control of other units.
To change the subject , what is Operational Detachment Alpha 163?
Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha soldier in Afghanistan. Presented by USA Army Ft. Leavenworth.
This is nomenclature used by US Army Special Forces. Operational Detachment Alphas are "the building blocks of Army Special Forces Groups." They are the operational level teams, usually consisting of 12 special forces soldiers, usually two officers (one of whom is usually a captain detachment commander) and 10 non-commissioned officers (NCOs). They have different skills such as intelligence, weapons, engineering, medical and communications. They are multi-lingual, and operate in denied or hostile areas, infiltrating and exfilitrating by any means available. They operate in remote locations with little or no outside support. They usually operate with allied forces and local militias. Assigning the number 163 to this particular detachment simply identifies it and its members.
TSgt Reilly was assigned to A-Team 163 to provide the airmanship skills the team would need to conduct its mission. We believe, but are not certain, that he was the only USAF CCT assigned to Team 163 on the day for which he received the Silver Star.
They staged from a place called "Forward Operational Base 12," or FOB-12. We have not been able to identify its location. That said, the US has had more than 100 FOBs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is an example of a FOB living area in Afghanistan. We believe this is a Marine Corps area at Bagram AB, Kandahar, a large base. The Marines called it "Camp Teufelhunden." Presented by Operation We Care.
Another example of FOB living in Afghanistan, a bit more austere than the first photo. Presented by jkeith8 at Webshots.com
They can range in size and facilities from a large air base to a place which has virtually nothing there but the necessities. The Alpha Teams will deploy from them to where they have to go, and then come back.
Let's now turn to the action of April 11, 2005, involving Alpha 163, commanded by Captain Brian Dowling, USA, Special Forces. Afghan General Khil Baz, commander, 25th Division Afghan Militia Force, and his patrol escort were ambushed by enemy forces in the Khowst-Gardez pass in the eastern part of the country. Alpha 163 and a helicopter air quick reaction force (A-QRF) were tasked to respond.
A Humvee, driven by U.S. Marines of Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, patrols the vicinity to provide security for the convoy during a security halt in the Khowst-Gardez Pass, Afghanistan, Dec. 29, 2004. Photo credit: Cpl. James L. Yarboro, USMC. Presented by Defend America
Alpha 163 boarded two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters sitting QRF alert. Each helicopter, crew and Alpha 163, carried 10 men.
UH060 Blackhawk positioned at the ready in Afghanistan. Presented by 2-10th Aviation "Knighthawks."
The aircrew of one of the two Blackhawks consisted of CW3 Chris Palumbo, CW2 Steven Burr, Sgt Ryan Pummill and Sgt John Irick, all Army. They were from the Alpha Company, 3rd Company, 158th Aviation Regiment "Blue Stars." Blue Star lineage is tied to a familiar group of warriors in Vietnam and elsewhere, the 48th Assault Helicopter Co.
One of the “Blue Star” UH-60 crew involved in the action described in this report (l to r): CW2 Steven Burr, Sgt John Irick, Sgt Ryan Pummill and CW3 Chris Palumbo following their heroic mission in Afghanistan supporting Alpha 163. Presented by 48AHC.org
Both Blackhawks took 163 to an area near the ambush site. It should be noted that this area had long been known as a highly dangerous spot for ambushes. TSgt Brad Reilly was on the second Blackhawk.
Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 130th Aviation Regiment fly an AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship over rugged Afghan terrain while providing security for a formation of UH-60 Blackhawks near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Feb. 12, 2004. Photo credit: Sgt. 1st Class Joe Belcher, USA. Presented by Defend America.
As is normally done, Apache helicopter gunships accompanied the force to provide close air support to the men on the ground as well as protection for the Blackhawks while they inserted Alpha 163.
Blackhawk insertion in Afghanistan. Presented by 48AHC.org
The Blackhawks flew over the hilly and rugged target area, the special forces spotted the enemy and their egress route, at least one of the aircraft landed at about that area, the 163 force was inserted. We are not exactly sure when in the sequence of events this occurred, but Alpha 163 was able to secure General Baz. Almost immediately, the aircraft and the 163 force began receiving hostile fire, high rates of automatic weapons and machine-gun fire. The enemy was on a hill about 30-50 ft. higher than 163. The Blackhawk that landed received significant fire, but both managed to insert their force, and went to a holding area to stand-by as needed.
Now on the ground, Alpha 163 returned fire and began assaulting the hill toward the enemy. Alpha 163 overran the enemy machine gun position using small arms, fragmentary grenades, and 40mm grenade fire.
The Apaches had been attacking and providing good cover throughout, but at some point during the fight, they ran low on fuel and had to break away to refuel and rearm. Once they left, the engagement intensified.
After the enemy machine-gun position was secured, Alpha 163 began receiving fire from three sides. Remember, 163 has only about 12 special forces troops and at least one Air Force CCT, TSgt Reilly.
Reilly was with Army Special Forces Master Sergeant Paul Cooper. They spotted a source of enemy fire down the hill, so they both charged toward it. Cooper was hit badly, wounded in both legs, and Reilly was hit in the foot. Enemy fire was so heavy they were both pinned down about 300 feet down the cliff, somewhat isolated from the rest of the group. Reilly continued returning fire and continued controlling air activity.
Reilly got himself and Cooper behind a tree. The enemy periodically had to pause and reload their machine-guns. Reilly used that time tend to Cooper's wounds, working to stop the bleeding from his legs. Reilly also maintained "air traffic control" contact with the Blackhawks, the two Apaches, and two USAF A-10 Warthog close air support fighters that had arrived in the area. Reilly's job was to direct their fire. He also had to reload the weapons he had, continue providing suppressive fire, and keep Cooper afloat.
Special Forces Sergeant First Class (SFC) Jubal Day, a 163 medic, went down the hill to provide medical help to the two wounded men. This made Reilly very happy, saying, "That's where the real life-saving got done." During the action, SFC Day was also wounded.
One of the Blackhawk pilots radioed down that the enemy was coming up the hill on two sides. Enemy fire remained strong. Palumbo, the skipper of one of the Blue Star Blackhawks, determined the only way out for these men was by helicopter, in this case, his helicopter. The other Alpha 163 men would be unable to effect an evacuation. Cooper later reported:
"The (helicopter) pilot (Palumbo) told Sergeant Reilly to put them (Palumbo's helicopter) between us and the enemy. So he (Reilly) did."
With help from Reilly on the radio, Palumbo maneuvered into the fire-fight, found the wounded, and put his Blackhawk between the wounded men and the enemy. Sgts Irick and crew chief Pummill manned the M-60D guns aboard the Blackhawk and unleashed their fire on the enemy.
UH-60 Blackhawk in flight in Somalia, door-gunner in the right of the picture "in the door", manning the M60D machine gun. Presented by Operation Restore Hope Pictures.
While they were firing, Palumbo rocked and turned his aircraft back and forth to enable one of the gunners to fire while the other reloaded. That enabled a steady stream of suppressive fire coming from his two sergeants. They expended 1,200 rounds in the fight.
Reilly would comment:
“I looked up to see both gunners (in the helicopter) standing straight up, firing down at the enemy. That act alone helped us out a lot.”
Pummel was wounded by shrapnel, but was determined to be okay. The entire crew continued fighting until the Apaches returned.
With the Apaches back, Capt. Dowling, A-163's leader, ordered his team to get down the hill and clear a path for a medevac helicopter.
This is a HH-60G Pavehawk (upgraded Blackhawk) engaged in "fastrope" training in Iraq. This is an insertion and extraction technique. Presented by Internet Lexicon
As Palumbo's helicopter approached for a medevac attempt, Dowling and his men laid down five solid minutes of fire. That allowed the medic aboard the helicopter to "fast rope" with a stretcher to help retrieve the wounded.
Palumbo and his crew extracted the wounded and took them to medical care at a FOB. Palumbo intended to refuel and return, but found that enemy fire had penetrated his fuel cell requiring him to execute an emergency engine shutdown on the ground. A walk around the aircraft found 55 bullet holes in his Blackhawk.
Left to right: Tech. Sgt. Bradley Reilly, Master Sgt. Paul Cooper and Capt. Brian Dowling after the presentation of the Silver Star and Purple Heart to Reilly at Hurlburt Field Air Park, Fla. Presented by Special Operations Command.
Both Cooper and Reilly recovered from their wounds. Cooper maintains that Reilly saved his life. Cooper also received the Silver Star from the Army.
Left to right: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, CW2 Steven Burr, Sgt John Irick, and Sgt Ryan Pummill, A/3-158th, Task Force Griffin. December 28, 2005. Presented by 12th Aviation Brigade.
With regard to the Blackhawk air crew that picked up the wounded: CW2 Chris Palumbo received the Silver Star; CW2 Steven Burr and Sergeants John Irick and Ryan Pummill received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the latter three receiving the DFC from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
The Army has seven Special Forces Groups (SFG), all of which are airborne. The 1st SFG is at Ft. Lewis Washington; 3rd and 7th SFGs at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina; 5th SFG at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky; 10th SFG, Ft. Carson, Colorado; 19th SFG, Utah Army National Guard (ANG), Salt Lake City; and the 20th SFG, Alabama ANG, Birmingham.
Once again, to you all, "Thank you for your service and sacrifice. You remain in our hearts and on our minds.
Dallas Morning News
May 22, 2006
Air Force Stepping Into War Zones On The Ground
Branch's enlisted personnel picking up casualties as Marines, Army are stretched
By Richard Whittle, The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – The insurgents of Afghanistan and Iraq have no air forces and rarely manage to fire a missile at a U.S. aircraft, but that hasn't kept the names of Air Force personnel off the casualty lists.
While in the past the officers who flew the U.S. Air Force's planes were most at risk, in today's wars, with the Army and Marines stretched thin, it is the service's enlisted men and women – called upon to do the jobs previously done by ground troops – who have paid the ultimate price more often.
"You expect the Marines and the Army to be taking most of the risk, but this war has changed that," said Aymber McElroy. A roadside bomb killed her husband, Staff Sgt. Brian McElroy, 28, of San Antonio, an Air Force policeman, as he escorted a convoy near Taji, Iraq, on Jan. 22.
"Air Force cops are used to standing out by a plane with a gun and making sure nobody comes near it," Mrs. McElroy said. "Now all of a sudden they're out there engaging people. It's a whole new ballgame."
In the Vietnam War, 87 percent of Air Force personnel killed in action were air losses, and thus mostly officers. But of 20 uniformed Air Force personnel killed by hostile action in Afghanistan and Iraq, 17 were enlisted – 85 percent – and 14 of those were killed on the ground.
Sgt. McElroy is one of seven Texans among the 46 uniformed Air Force personnel who have died in these wars. Another 254 uniformed Air Force members have been wounded. The service's KIAs in Iraq also include two civilian Air Force employees.
The numbers are small compared with the more than 1,600 Army soldiers and nearly 700 Marines who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, but those two services account for the bulk of the 153,000 U.S. troops in those countries.
Of roughly 22,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about 2,750 are Air Force. About 9,700 Air Force members are among the 131,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.
"Because the Army and Marines are so heavily stretched, the Air Force has picked up a lot of missions or pieces of missions that they've never had before," said retired Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, who flew F-4 Phantom fighter planes in Vietnam.
"There are a lot of Air Force truck drivers driving trucks from Kuwait up into Iraq, and therefore they are exposed to explosive devices and people shooting at them," Gen. Smith noted. "In the old days, Air Force police only had to protect inside a base, but they are required to operate outside bases to relieve Army forces."
If the Army had more troops in Iraq, "then I think they would do all those missions and the Air Force would stay within their traditional role," Gen. Smith said. But the Air Force hasn't been reluctant to take those jobs, he added: "The Air Force wants to be a combat service and perform combat roles. They wanted to stay in the fight."
Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, said about 5,000 of those from his service in Afghanistan and Iraq are doing jobs normally done by the Army: "Interrogators, prison guards, driving trucks – things that are not classic Air Force missions."
But "I wouldn't want to say my Air Force people are killed because the Army is not big," Gen. Moseley said. "These heroic airmen have been killed because they have volunteered to defend their country, and we're asking them in this war on terrorism to do some things in a joint sense that we've never had to do before."
Should the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command send out a request for 100 convoy drivers, Gen. Moseley said, "If the Air Force share of that is 10 or 15 or 20 drivers, then we took an oath to defend this country, and we'll go drive trucks."
The riskier life of Air Force enlisted personnel these days hasn't affected recruiting. The active-duty Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard routinely get 100 percent of their goals. In any event, the service is shrinking its 350,000 active-duty strength by about 40,000 in coming years.
The new ground role of the Air Force is why Gen. Moseley decided to expand his service's basic training to include far more emphasis on small arms and emergency medical care, he said. He's also considering whether the Air Force should buy armored vehicles for its security guards to use on patrols outside U.S. bases.
The Navy is also being asked to supply sailors for ground missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather than change its own basic training, the sea service is sending sailors to a special two-week course in small arms and other war fighting skills conducted by the Army at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Many Air Force personnel in the war zones are in jobs that are risky by their nature. They include bomb disposal experts, "tactical air control parties" who use laser and GPS designators to pinpoint targets for aircraft, and "PJs" – medics who can parachute in to rescue battlefield wounded and downed pilots.
Sarah Losano's husband, Airman 1st Class Raymond Losano, 24, of Del Rio, was killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan on April 25, 2003, while calling in airstrikes on the Taliban. He had enlisted in November 2001.
"He joined the Air Force after I had our first child because we were kind of at the end of our rope and had to figure out something to do to support ourselves," Mrs. Losano said. "We started talking about it, and he brought up the Army, and I said, 'Well, if you were to go into any of the branches, I would prefer the Air Force.' "
The Air Force, she figured at the time, would be "more family-oriented" and safer. "Even my dad was like, 'It's best that he goes into the Air Force because he's less likely to be killed or injured,' " Mrs. Losano recalled.
Once he became a tactical air controller, however, "I knew he was in danger," she said.
Tech. Sgt. Walter M. Moss Jr., 37, of Houston, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq on March 29, always ran risks, said his brother, Brian Moss of Spring, Texas.
"Disabling bombs was his job," his brother noted. "They're the tough guys of the Air Force. They're somewhat special forces because they have to deal with this pressure of finding explosives and detonating them."
In Iraq, his brother "felt like he was doing an honorable thing, clearing these IEDs off the road," Mr. Moss said. "Women and children, innocent people, were being killed by these things."
Selena Rangel's husband, Staff Sgt. Ray Rangel, 29, of San Antonio was an Air Force fireman with nearly 10 years of service when he went to Iraq in September 2004. He died Feb. 13, 2005, at Balad when he fell into a cold, swift canal while trying to rescue three Army soldiers whose Humvee had plunged into the water.
"I think it's come down to where, even though they are the Air Force and a lot of people in the country don't think they do this kind of thing, it's military life, and that's the way it is," Mrs. Rangel said.
Mrs. Rangel said the Air Force, which awarded her husband the Bronze Star for his heroism, "has been great to me" since his death.
Mrs. Losano has had the same experience with the service, she said, but is chagrined at how many civilians fail to appreciate that Air Force troops are making sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq, too.
"A lot of times I'll tell people the situation and they'll say, 'How long was he in the Army?' " Mrs. Losano said. "Or if I say he was killed in Afghanistan, everyone assumes he was in the Army. I definitely believe that a lot of people think that it's just the Army and Marines doing the fighting."
Mrs. McElroy said her husband, who called home every day from Iraq, even when he was on a convoy, told her that "he and his team over there kept joking that when they were old, crusty men sitting at the VFW, they were sure they were going to run into Marines who had served at Fallujah and Army guys who were in Baghdad.
"They were going to hold their beers high and say, 'We were at all those places – and we were Air Force.' "
Air Force Combat Controllers: Shoot, move, communicate
The Airman's Magazine published a story by Lt. Carie A. Seydel, USAF, that carried the above title. The story contained several quotes from Master Sergeant Paul "Vinnie" Venturella and Technical Sergeant James "Ski" Pulaski, members of the USAF's 321st Special Tactics Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, England. We commend the full story to your attention, but there are a couple quotes in there we simply have to highlight:
"I can get to work in any manner — jumping, diving, walking, vehicle, boat or submarine.
"Being in charge as an air traffic controller, you’re the man in charge of the airfield. Nothing goes on without you knowing it. I get a real rush when I’m ‘rockin’ on the mike,’ separating air traffic and keeping things moving.
"Even my wife has a hard time explaining what I do, so she tells people I’m a cook.
"The best part of the job is knowing when you’re in ‘deep suck,’ your buddy is with you.”