The Air Force – On the Ground — in Afghanistan

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Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder

Pararescuemen delivered via HH-60 Pave Hawk launch their mission in Afghanistan last month.

Air Force Major Gary Alexander has been to Afghanistan four times working with some of the most talented and brave folks to wear Air Force blue as a special tactics officer.

In this October interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, he detailed some of what he experienced. Highlights:

Let me first give a background on what Special Tactics is in the Air Force…inside Special Tactics you have pararescue, combat controllers, combat weather, and tactical air control parties or TACPs, so I myself have a background of combat control, which focuses on air-to-ground terminal control.

Pararescuemen, or PJs, those are the guys you see in all the movies. They do amazing jobs. I really respect them, because usually their best day is somebody else’s worst nightmare, whether it’s a helicopter crash or somebody’s been injured or downed. Those are the guys that are doing the battlefield trauma care.

The combat weathermen, just like their name would say, they do metrological interpretation, which can affect how the battlefield is going to change and how you are going to conduct operations.

Then the tactical air control party, again, they are air-to-ground specialists, but they focus primarily on close air support.

Special Tactics Officer is in charge of all four of those enlisted Air Force Specialty Codes, and just like most officers, we do a lot of organizing, equipping, training, making sure they are ready to accomplish their mission for whatever global command or theater commander needs such…

I have had four [deployments]. The first one was in May of ’02 through July of ’02 and that was with my unit that I was stationed with – the 23rd Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron out of Hurlburt Field, Florida. We went to Afghanistan. My job while I was there was to do terminal air control, mostly it was with the landings of C130s at a base in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

My second deployment, from June of ’05 to November of ’05, I was at Pope Air Force Base at this time, and I went over there as part of the 21st Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron. I was, what’s called our Special Tactics Operations Center Command, so I was essentially the Air Force’s Special Tactics commander in theater.

That was an amazing deployment because we had a lot happen. The war was at a very different time at that time, because that was right about the height when everything was happening in Iraq. The focus was on Iraq where we were still doing a lot of great stuff in Afghanistan.

I had an amazing time there. I worked with some incredible people there, but the thing that sticks out in my mind, looking back at June of ’05, is within a week of getting there – right when we were doing our transition with the unit that was already there – was when an Army MH-47 had crashed. That was the one that carrying a whole bunch of Navy Seals and it was the largest tragedy to date for casualties in Afghanistan. It was like, “Welcome back to Afghanistan.” I guess, the good thing was that happened at the beginning so that kind of prepped me, again, “We are at war.” Again, guys did some amazing things out there that made some huge differences out on the battlefield.

The third time I went over there, I received a phone call about three weeks prior to going over letting me know that I would be heading over early. Which was actually a blessing, because this was when I was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico – which if you have ever been there it is a lot like nothing, so going to Afghanistan was actually kind of a vacation.

I got over there early and, again, I was doing the job of the in-country Afghanistan Special Tactics Commander and I did it for two different units that were there. I was kind of doing an augmentation, if you will, because I was not assigned to the two units that came into theater while it was there. One was from Hurlburt Field and other one was from Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. Again, I was a commander for the first part of it, probably the first two, two-and-a-half months and then I was able to go out and work with some of the ground teams from Special Operations as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, also known as a JTAC. I did that for about six months and we redeployed, so that was from November of ’07 to July of ’08.

Then my final time over there was in April ’11 to September ’11 and I was working in the Combined Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan, the JOC, so the Joint Operations Center. I was essentially in the job that I had done previously as the commander back in my other previous two deployments. Now in Afghanistan the concentration had grown.

Again, we had shut down Iraq, so there was a lot of people there. I was a liaison to my boss who was now a lieutenant colonel to the overall Special Operations Task Force that was there. What I will remember about that deployment was at the very end, on August 6th, another helicopter crashed full of Navy Seals along with a couple of Special Tactics brethren.

They now have a huge memorial; it’s called the Thirty-one, Remember the Thirty-one. Having been in country for the two worst helicopter crashes, it’s, I don’t know really what to say other than that, but those obviously stick out for my two deployments during those timeframes.

{On my third deployment] I saw both the leadership aspect of it and being on the ground the, tactical side…

My major responsibilities were the roughly I think thirty Joint Terminal Attack Controller guys that I had out in the field at that time. I was in charge of making sure they were outfitted and equipped to conduct their mission. They were actually TACON, which is tactical control to the Special Operations ground units they were with.

When an Air Force Special Tactics guy goes over into theater, he basically gets farmed out to a larger team. We do not go over there as a team and conduct operations. We have single guys, maybe two guys, that will go out to a detachment and then they will conduct operations.

I have all these single guys all over the country of Afghanistan. My job is to make sure that they are actually taken care of, that they have everything that they need to do their job, and obviously, I am the reporting channel back to my boss – whether he was in theater in Afghanistan or he was over in another headquarters in the Central Command theater. Again I knew what I was getting in to and I had a blast. Taking care of people is fun in its own way…

I knew that in the Air Force, there really was not much of a chance of being part of an infantry unit…but I always wanted to be part of like a small close-knit unit. It took until 2008, when I got over there and I was able to go out into the field as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, but prior to that all the deployments of going over there, like as soon as you get in country with a small group of people, you become a small tight-knit unit.

I guess the lesson learned is – there are guys that again we got the Special Forces teams out there, Navy, Army, as well as the coalition and the Marines and here is our single Air Force guy that shows up. They know nothing about this guy. They know absolutely nothing. But, by him getting off the helicopter and replacing the guy that’s already there, he already has credibility because he has been through the training, he’s maintained the same standards and hopefully he knows how to react when bad things start happening.

I would say being able to see the guys go out there and do that and then when then they actually, because our cycle differs from when we rotate for the guys on the ground, the actual teams, to see those guys have to come out early or to leave their teams or they’re teams departed prior to them, it was a big flip-flopping game.

They were sad because they realized that in combat obviously you shared a lot more, so I would say what I have learned. I have learned that combat brings people together like no other and you cannot tear that apart. I am saying fortunately I did get to finally experience that when I went out on the ground.

There are guys that I will never forget, faces I will never forget, and operations that I will never forget.