By Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel
19th Airlift Wing Public Affiars
Recently, I was able to witness one of the combat exercises that the 34th Combat Training Squadron conducts at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Ft. Polk, Louisiana.
The mission of the 34th CTS is to provide tailored joint mobility training to produce combat-ready Airmen and Soldiers. The squadron conducts Green Flag Little Rock at Little Rock Air Force Base as well as from two out-of-state detachments located at Ft. Polk and Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
The purpose of GFLR is to exercise and evaluate the combat readiness of Air Force strategic airlift. GFLR also provides an opportunity to train with partner forces while in a simulated deployed environment.
But this was not just another routine exercise for the 34th CTS.
For the first time, C-130 aircrew members from another 19th Airlift Wing squadron would be on the ground, training for a scenario where their plane went down in a hostile environment.
Three loadmasters and one pilot, all from the 41st Airlift Squadron volunteered to be dropped in the middle of the Louisiana wilderness to test their survival, evasion, resistance and escape skills.
The team of four was monitored by two Team Little Rock SERE instructors who followed the group throughout their trek through Louisiana’s sub-tropical climate.
“These guys are used to flying and conducting airdrops,” said Tech Sgt. John Conant, 34th CTS SERE specialist. “They can experience what it is like from the ground and see the importance of dropping cargo on the target.”
The first day started early. Members from the 34th CTS, other 19th AW squadrons and I were up at 3 a.m. to prepare for departure.
First there were pre-flight briefings informing the crew of weather conditions, flight patterns and simulated enemy threats in the vicinity of Ft. Polk.
Then, we loaded up in a Humvee and the vehicle was loaded into the back of a C-130J, with inches to spare on either side.
After an hour of flying, we landed at Alexandria International Airport and drove roughly 45 minutes to arrive at Ft. Polk.
Ft. Polk was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. For starters, the post is massive. It consumes approximately 200,000 acres of land, including the Kisatchie National Forest.
When we arrived, signs of an actual contingency operation could be seen everywhere.
Once inside, we passed huge convoys of Army Humvees and tanks. An assortment of tactical vehicles could be seen including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, tankers and all-terrain vehicles.
There was even a simulated village that looked and felt worlds away from the Louisiana that I had seen. We passed through the village on our way to meet up with the SERE team. Signs were in foreign languages, and there were Afghans as well as Americans dressed up as villagers.
We passed huts with women in cultural attire in front of them, selling accessories. Even a goat or two could be seen roaming the streets.
By the time we met up with the SERE instructors and students, they had been in the wilderness the entire night and day before.
The team was using multiple devices to signal an Air Force C-130 to their location.
The C-130 roared overhead and dropped a sandbag that simulated much-needed supplies.
“When these four Airmen are flying, dropping a pallet on target is almost like a game,” said Tech Sgt. Justin McCaffrey, 19th Operations Support Squadron SERE noncommissioned officer in charge. “But when they’ve been out here, they realize how important it is to be on target. You could be shot when retrieving the cargo.”
After the team successfully retrieved their cargo, they hiked through the woods to get closer to their destination.
“This part of the exercise will teach the Airmen to do whatever it takes to get out of hostile territory, as well as being stealthy, silent and hidden when in a chaotic environment,” said Lt. Col. Russell Parramore, 34th CTS detachment operating location alpha commander.
As part of their hike, the SERE students snuck past foreign military police and a crowded village. Again, they began hiking the wilderness toward their final destination- the landing zone.
Once we reached the landing zone, the Airmen contacted nearby Soldiers for a quick extraction.
Parramore set off several smoke grenades, and within minutes, there were two UH-60 Black Hawks circling overhead.
“It is important to know how to communicate with other Airmen as well as Soldiers in a deployed environment,” said Conant.
The helicopters landed and a team of Soldiers surrounded the extraction point as well as our small group, to determine any potential threats.
After the Airmen and Soldiers spoke with each other, all of the troops were prepared to board the Black Hawks.
We ran through flying blades of grass and falling branches and jumped onto the aircraft.
Within seconds we were strapped into place and soaring over the vast wilderness. Apache attack helicopters could be seen flying nearby, to ensure protection.
After the ride, the SERE students and their instructors disembarked the Black Hawk and were debriefed by several Soldiers.
When their mission was completed, the Airmen reflected on their experience and said that they had all learned something.
“Before, I was one of those loadmasters who would see an airdrop as another routine job,” said Airman 1st Class Dustin Thomerson. “But after being out here, you really get a sense of how important performing each airdrop is to the people below.”
All aircrew Airmen are required to go through SERE training. But after initial schooling, Airmen are only required to attend a SERE refresher training every three years.
“But this opportunity was not a requirement,” said Conant. “These Airmen volunteered to practice SERE skills in a new environment, and they were able to make their own decisions out here, instead of being guided or instructed the whole way.”
The general consensus from the four students was that they garnered experience and new perspective, all while seeming to have a great time, throughout the unique combat training exercise. Being a part of Green Flag Little Rock gave the Airmen an opportunity to see what they do every day yet from a different viewpoint.
“This team of Airmen has paved the way for other Team Little Rock members to learn new skills and techniques in working with our integral Army partners,” said Lt. Col. Steve Smith, 34th CTS commander. “Hopefully in the future, we can have more Airmen come down and experience what this group accomplished over the past two days.”
Sometimes when completing daily tasks and duties, it is easy to forget what combat airlift is all about. Seeing the 34th CTS put all that training into action emphasized the global importance that combat airlift holds.