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Battlefield Airmen skills at RED FLAG – Alaska

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- “I’m a totally different person than I was six years ago,” he said over his shoulder from the passenger seat of a muddy F-350 “Super Duty” Ford truck as it swung back and forth in what looked like chili.

The truck leapt in and out of deep ruts as it labored up the steep access road that grants authorized personnel here access to the world’s largest bomb range being used for RED FLAG – Alaska 06-2.

“I thought I was a man then, but I’m much more mature since joining the Special Forces,” he continued. “It changes the way you look at life and gives you life skills that have helped me as a parent and made me a professional.”

For two weeks, Tech. Sgt. Michael Haytack, a seasoned Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron, Hickam AFB, Hawaii, accompanies his unit on this hour long trek to the Yukon Training Area here for upgrade training, where he passes on lessons and skills he’s learned at war.

JTACs are close-air-support experts; enlisted Airman that live “outside the wire” on deployments with the U.S. Army. They act as an Army battalion’s liaison with Air Force attack pilots and help put bombs on target when enemies are close to friendly forces.

“For me and Adam it’s about training the young guys now, the young battlefield Airmen, and making them more complete,” Sergeant Haytack admits glancing at Tech. Sgt. Adam Vizi, 25th ASOS chief of training, who’s driving.

Both have experienced the global war on terror first hand.

Sergeant Haytack was one of the first “battlefield Airmen” to go into Afghanistan after 9-11. He’s proven his merit, but won’t admit it unless specifically asked. Even then he plays it down and shifts the focus to what he calls his “superheroes;” pararescuemen (PJs) who swooped down in an MH 53J Pave Low III helicopter to rescue him in an austere location.

“If anyone deserves to be recognized, it’s the PJs,” Sergeant Haytack said. He told about waiting for six hours with his knee split open knowing they’d come to get him. The Army unit he was with had been hit hard; not everyone survived.

Six months later, after being put back together by a “super, squared-away,” deployed U.S. Air Force Academy medical team and the medical team at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, he went back to Afghanistan.

When asked what he thought about the U.S. involvement there, his reply was simple.

“We love our country,” he said, again glancing at Sergeant Vizi. “It’s not my job to question what we’re doing over there. It’s my duty to do my job. So I volunteered to go back.”

Sergeant Haytack was also one of the first Airmen into Iraq in March 2003 and has served three tours in “the desert.” He’s been awarded the Bronze Star with the Valor device and the Purple Heart. He’s assisted the Afghani President Hamid Karzai, and helped in the nation-building process of Iraq.

He’s seen the effects of war more than most Airmen, and his wartime experiences are invaluable to the young ones he now trains. That’s why they’re here, to get ready for war.

“This looks just like Afghanistan. The terrain is very similar,” Sergeant Haytack said looking out the window.

Tech. Sgt. Adam Vizi, is here to help him train their Airmen. He spent a year in Afghanistan as a JTAC. He’s helped build roads, bridges and schools. He’s helped get Afghanis access to electricity and helped provide security for the first Afghani elections in the country’s 5,000 year history.

But that’s not his specialty, and that’s not what his Airmen are practicing here. He’s prepping the new generation of JTACs by practicing their tactics, techniques and procedures.

A truck behind them with the rest of their unit pulls up and stops at their destination, a mountaintop overlooking an “enemy” airfield in the valley below.

JTACs are Tactical Air Control Party, pronounced “TAC Pees” for short, who are “combat mission ready” qualified. Qualification entails four years of training, after a five month tech school, survival school and their Career Development Courses.

Three of their unit’s Senior Airmen are taking advantage of the exercise to prepare for one of their JTAC qualifying courses called the Joint Fire Power Course. Eventually they’ll be ready for their CMR check ride, a three day event where they’re tested on vehicle and foot navigation, Global Positioning System navigation, “camo” flash (camouflage face painting), and “camo” truck skills. The check ride can take place in the field or at home station.

“The check ride’s a good time,” said Senior Airman Glenn Wilderman, one of the unit’s newest JTACs, as he set up his equipment. “Bull did mine. He made it fun.”

Bull is what they call Staff Sgt. Neil Adams, one of the unit’s experienced JTACs and the one that keeps them laughing with impressions of Russian drunkards as he scans their targets for today’s training through a Special Operations Forces Loitering Attack Munitions LASER marker.

Although not yet “CMR” qualified, more than half of the Airmen with them have already been to the desert and can draw on their own experiences in Iraq. They work with the Army as Radio Operators, Maintainers and Drivers.

“During one of the convoys I was on in Iraq, our bomb dog found six Improvised Explosive Devices,” said Senior Airman Sergio Meneses, a ROMAD here for upgrade training. “I saw a humvee hit an IED, flip completely over in the air and land on its roof.”

The unit mission plans between stories and jokes as they wait for two of their regular and most lethal customers, the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the F-16CJ Fighting Falcon. They study maps and analyze the terrain while filling out a 9-Line, the standard format used to pass target information to the pilots.

“They’ll get a brief that’s called a 9-line, in essence that’s the meat and potatoes of what has to happen,” Sergeant Haytack said.

Soon, the show begins. A-10s from the 75 Fighter Squadron, Pope AFB, N.C., circle above, and Sergeant Vizi visually identifies them. They make radio contact, he explains his unit’s “predicament” and goes over the 9-line. Sergeant Vizi calls it his “talk on,” one of three controls JTACs use for CAS.

Then BLAM! MK 82s or 500 pound dummy bombs, rain down on the problem. Had the bombs been live, the practice targets would not have lasted long. Once the smoke has literally cleared, JTACs report the battle damage assessment back to the pilots.

“We’re passing off some BDA to these guys. It eventually goes back to the intel side and a lot of other agencies will use it for collecting the proper data,” Sergeant Haytack explains. “It allows them to target more accurately later on.”

The Senior Airmen take turns employing air power to wreak havoc on the “hostile forces” so their simulated “friendly forces” can advance. The pilots follow their lead, bombing and strafing the enemy airfield etched in the snowy forest below, until the pilots and JTACs have all had a turn.

Mission accomplished!

On the way back to base, Sergeant Vizi plows through the slushy mud caused by Alaska’s snow and ice “break up” and laughs as he assigns his Airmen with washing the government trucks in the morning.

But he gets serious again. His years of experience with the Army and as a TACP instructor at the career field’s schoolhouse take over as he slips into a final instructional thought.

“In order for air power to be effective, you’ve got to have awesome skill sets to fix the jets, to get the jets loaded with bombs, loaded with fuel, etc.,” Sergeant Vizi said. “But… when the bombs come off the rack, that’s where we come into play. Everybody’s part of a team, and (our) part of that team sometimes goes unnoticed…we’re all an Air Force of one.”

JTACs are the Air Force’s “Infantry,” its “Ground Pounders.” They wear black berets, Army patches and support all types of Army maneuver units from Airborne to Special Forces. They jump out of aircraft and “hump” more than 70 pounds of radio equipment on their backs for miles. And they’re helping wage the war on terror.

Sergeant Haytack looked at Sergeant Vizi, smiled and gave him a “Hooah!” and then both laughed.

They can’t help it. They might be “joint,” but they’re still Airmen to the core. (Courtesy of Pacific Air Forces)