EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Walking through terrain consistent to a wet sponge for hours that seemed like days; their boots are soaked and feet pruned.
Dehydration sets in and cramping starts, but they keep going one step at a time because they know the pain is only temporary and there is a competition to be won.
This is some of what the tactical air control party specialists from the 1st Air Support Operations Group experienced at Cascade Challenge 2016.
“The TACP career field has traditionally done competitions over the years to bring together the tasked skills they’re trained on in a mission-oriented type of environment,” said Chief Master Sgt. Shane Horbrecht, the 1st ASOG chief enlisted manager. “They come to these competitions to help solidify the training they get.”
The Airmen who competed in this challenge are the best within their squadrons, and because of their skills they received the opportunity to prove they are the best within their group.
“From here some of these guys will move on to the Lightning Challenge which is a TACP overall competition in October of this year,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Leonard, 5th Air Support Operations Squadron, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, project planner for Cascade Challenge 2016.
The competition included 22 events; one of the toughest being a land navigation challenge through dense Alaskan wilderness.
Competitors navigated through swamps and marshes for hours on end, soaked up to their knees at times, while wearing body armor and carrying a 50 pound rucksack.
Even through challenges like this, these Airmen performed beyond expectations.
“I had no doubt that they were going to perform awesome, but I didn’t expect what we got,” said Leonard. “Expectations were already high, but they went far above it.”
Tougher and longer than ever before, the events in this year’s Cascade Challenge allowed for little to no rest. Even with their feet covered in blisters, their bodies sore and caked in dirt from days that most people would consider torture, these Airmen pushed through the challenges with no complaints.
“Usually when you put them in these types of events there is a slight drop in motivation, morale is down and the environment is not always that easy,” said Leonard. “These guys never showed defeat; we never once witnessed it. They were constantly motivated, and every cadre, every instructor around here were like ‘these guys are nonstop,’ even in the worst situation.”
Even with their feet bloodied from days of rucking and navigating, these Airmen trudged on with heads held high. By the time the competition was over, the competitors sparked inspiration in their leadership.
“I want to be in next year’s competition,” said Leonard. “I haven’t done a competition in almost 10 years and I want to get back in, I want to be with these guys next year. I may not perform as well as they will, but at least I’ll be there with them— having the camaraderie they have and embracing the suck.”
It was a rough week. They barely slept and the competition challenged them both physically and mentally. By the end of the week, each battlefield Airman who had competed in Cascade Challenge 2016 left better than they arrived.
“Whether you do well or poorly on each event, you get a chance to go back and look at what you’ve done,” said Senior Airman Collin Skees, 5th ASOS TACP Airman. “Every guy out there is the best in their unit, and knowing that is a little intimidating, but it really pushes you to give a maximum effort against every single obstacle.”