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Airmen work to join elite unit

Photo by Sgt. Adam L. Mathis

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. David Knutzen was in a different world.

He dropped the water jugs and kept moving. The magazine fell out of his weapon and he paused, wanting to go back for it.

"Ah crap," thought Knutzen of Denver, a communications officer with the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron, "this is not the way to start things off."

The instructor running with him did not care. Press on.

On Knutzen ran across Range 16 until he came to a jeep: take cover, shoot, continue. Out into the open now, shoot some more, climb over a trailer, stop again to shoot, then fire the weapon while moving. Another run with water jugs, uphill this time, then drop to the prone and shoot some more. During all of this, his instructor was blowing an air horn, shaking him or hitting his helmet with the horn.

This is how the 1st Air Support Operations Group prepares Airmen for combat.

The stress shoot at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was part of an annual training exercise for tactical air control parties, or TACPs, attached to the 1st Air Support Operations Group. TACPs consist of support personnel and some of the Air Force's elite units, joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, a group critical to deployed operations for the military. In addition to support and the attack controllers, airmen also serve as apprentices to become JTACs.

"(JTACs) are spread out across combat units all across the United States military - whether it be Army conventional units, Rangers, Special Forces, Navy SEALS, Marines - and a JTAC is basically someone that the Department of Defense has recognized through their training that has the ability to provide final control for fixed wing aircraft, providing close air support to ground troops in close proximity to the enemy," said 1st Lt. Brandon Temple of Corona, Calif., an air liaison officer with the 5th ASOS.

To earn that recognition, the JTAC trainees have their skills tested in stressful situations. After more than two to three years training, the apprentices can become JTACs. Attack controllers often deploy with little support from other Air Force personnel on the ground, Temple said, meaning a JTAC needs to know every aspect of combat operations without relying on others.

This is why the training week at JBLM, which included convoy operations and exiting and loading an aircraft while under fire, focused on the details that make up each mission. JTAC training must instill attention to these details or weed out those who cannot handle the responsibility.

"If you don't have that attention to detail then, you pass a wrong grid, drop a bomb on friendlies instead of, you know, whatever your target is," said Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Bowling of Baytown, Texas, a JTAC with the 17th ASOS. "Things like that make attention to detail very important, you know, because you've got guys lives in your hand and whenever you got enemy 100 meters away you know and your trying to drop a bomb on them versus you, all that stuff comes into play."

The kind of training necessary to create a JTAC does more than just check a box for a candidate. For Knutzen, much of this training was new and it instilled a new respect for what these service members do.

"A lot of the stuff that we did this week, I've never seen before. I'm new to the unit; even though I do have a tactical (communications) background and coming from kind of big Air Force, this is a slightly different world for me, and if nothing else I have a lot more appreciation than I did previously for what these guys - the TACPs, the infantryman, all the combat arms types - do in the field," Knutzen said.

Photo: Airmen run to enter a helicopter as part of their annual training, hosted by the 1st Air Support Operations Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Sept. 12. Some of the Airmen participating in the exercise are training to become joint terminal air controllers. JTACs control close air support for military units downrange.

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