JTACs call in 'guardian angels'
by Staff Sgt. Carlos Diaz
U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs
5/8/2007 - SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq (AFNEWS) -- A joint terminal attack controller is completely immersed downrange on the battlefield. His heart is pounding and his forehead drips with sweat as he directs a combat aircraft to provide close-air support for U.S. ground forces there.
The JTAC's eyes light up as he sees the aircraft deliver a precise, deadly aerial attack on an unsuspecting hostile target.
From forward positions, JTACs employ highly-detailed communication channels and a well-coordinated process to execute the CAS mission. These unique Airmen are aligned with their Army brethren and serve in the "tip of the spear," a phrase associated with being on the very front lines of the war on terrorism.
"Our job is to communicate with the aircraft and ground forces," said Staff Sgt. Justin Pilant, a two-year JTAC deployed from Ft. Lewis, Wash. "We connect the two worlds."
Sergeant Pilant said with careful communication, JTACs are able to call in superior firepower to eliminate various enemy targets.
"When I'm out on missions, I provide the brigade commander with the CAS guidance he'll need," Sergeant Pilant said. "With the ground commander's clearance, he has the full authority to drop bombs on target."
Before bombs are effectively delivered, mission planning takes place.
"A few days before a mission, we fine-tune our plan of attack," said Master Sgt. Brian Wilchenski, 3rd Stryker Brigade superintendent. "We perform ... drills and walk through all our steps for effective execution."
Missions vary depending on their overall objectives.
"We conduct targeted raids, general area clearance and searches for weapons caches," said Sergeant Pilant, the veteran of three deployments and several combat operations.
Their unit also serves as the corps reserve, and, whenever needed, they routinely travel cross-country throughout Iraq to fight the enemy.
On one particular battlefield mission, Sergeant Pilant and his counterpart, Airman 1st Class Josh Scott, prepared their equipment and gear.
They strapped on their heavy individual body armor that perfectly hugged their bodies. They locked and loaded their weapons and ensured their vehicle was properly supplied with water, food and other essential items.
Airman Scott is the youngest tactical air control party specialist on the team. But what he lacks in experience he more than makes up for it with his assertive attitude and moxie.
"He's my right-hand man," Sergeant Pilant said. "We're a team and we work very well together. During missions, he's so important to me because he can pass information and relay messages."
Only two years removed from his high school's senior prom, 20-year-old Airman Scott finds himself in a land that is absent from formal dancing, pictures and tuxedos. This young war fighter's charge keeps him extremely motivated.
"We bring a lot to the fight, and I'm glad we can provide that type of support to our Army comrades," he said. "They trust us to do our jobs, and that's a great feeling."
During missions, Airman Scott has plenty on his mind.
"I'm constantly thinking about several things," he said. "I have to know exactly where our friendly forces are. I'm always looking out for my JTAC and making sure our communication capabilities are in sync."
By employing the remote operated video-enhanced receiver, or ROVER, a program that allows ground forces to see what an aircraft is seeing in real time, Airman Scott provides his JTAC the situational awareness needed.
"The ROVER is so important because it enables us to go kinetic and save lives," Airman Scott said.
After a comprehensive mission briefing, a team of five Soldiers and two Airmen climb into their Stryker, an eight-wheeled all-wheel-drive armored combat vehicle.
The Stryker can move infantry units to the battlefield quickly and in relative security. For these units, Strykers increase combat power by providing armor protection. Strykers are effective in urban areas, where they can establish initial security positions near a building and deliver squads right to a doorstep.
"These are very safe vehicles because some of the roads we travel on have (improvised explosive devices)," Sergeant Pilant cautioned.
After a long stretch of open freeway, the Strykers arrived at their desired location.
The squads dismounted and quickly cordoned the area.
"To avoid possible drive-by shootings and (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), we don't let anyone pass through the street," Sergeant Pilant said.
The neighborhood was cluttered with apartment houses, the streets were littered with trash. Passersby smiled and waved.
"I have to be prepared for anything," Sergeant Pilant said of his mindset. "I need to be sure I have everything I need to support the brigade commander."
Being prepared and ready for anything is due to the intense training JTACs receive.
"Once you've reached a certain level of proficiency, you can train to become a JTAC," Sergeant Pilant said.
According to him, the program works in three phases and is very intense.
"We go through initial training at our home station, formal training at the Joint Firepower Course at Nellis (Air Force Base, Nev.), and finally we must pass four graded controls given by JTAC instructors at our base."
JTAC training is based on how they conduct their tactical CAS mission in the field. To some JTACs, their real-world experiences mirror that constant training.
"We train hard so we feel that same feeling on the battlefield," said Staff Sgt. Chris Frobuccino, a JTAC on his second deployment to Iraq. "When I'm out there, the element of time is the same and the urgency is just as equal."
The JTACs' field opportunities enhance their abilities.
"We take the urban environment experiences and lessons learned to the training back home," Sergeant Frobuccino said. "We incorporate new war-fighting techniques, training and tactics, and that's why we train so much."
A pair of JTACs have taken their training and displayed superb tactical air support for ground attack fighters.
In late January, Senior Airmen Dan Strom and Josh Woeckener eliminated approximately 300 enemy forces. The young Airmen tracked and controlled for more than 24 hours. Their acute JTAC skills were well-tested.
Airman Strom credits his combat performance to training.
"Training was the key," he said. "I knew exactly what to do and how to do it."
Airman Woeckener was assisting Airman Strom for the first time.
"The enemy was well-armed," he said, "and they put up a good fight. If we hadn't taken them out, it could've gotten bad."
Airman Strom said a few U.S. forces were injured, but there were no casualties.
At the end of a long day, that's their goal: keeping the fighting forces alive.
Two Soldiers from the 2nd Infantry, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, cite the value of JTACs..
"They provide our overwatch," said Army Specialist Jason Zwettler, a 22-year-old Stryker driver. "If the situation calls for it, they can drop those bombs and eliminate the enemy with amazing quickness."
Most CAS operations are conducted within 10 minutes or less.
Specialist Andres Solis gets a calming effect from his JTAC.
"Our missions would be a lot more nail biting if it weren't for them," said the 24-year-old air sentry guard. "They're very proficient at what they do, and they do it so well."
"Controlling the aircraft and providing the CAS is the reason we're here," said Staff Sgt. Jason Nilsen, a JTAC. "Keeping the Army safe is our top priority."
Sergeant Nilsen is a 12-year Air Force member. He decided to cross-train as a JTAC in August 2002.
"9/11 is the main reason I wanted a change of pace," he said. "I wanted to contribute more directly in the capturing of terrorists."
Sergeant Nilsen gets satisfaction when a mission ends successfully.
"When the targets have been eliminated and we didn't lose anyone, it brings a sense of normalcy," he said. "I get a great sense of accomplishment when we all come back alive."
Controlling the skies and directing the action of offensive operations is a job that allows JTACs to join a special fraternity.
"Working alongside the Army is like a brotherhood," Airman Scott said. "Everyone helps each other out and we've made great, long-lasting friendships."
Being the youngest Airman in a squad of highly seasoned JTACs gives Airman Scott an incredible sense of pride in his job.
"I think this is a great job because a CAS mission could mean life or death for an infantry unit," he said. "I'm glad I have a small part in helping to save lives."
Specialist Solis kindly refers to his Airmen brothers as "Soldiers with blue name tags." He said it's great to befriend members of other military branches.
Specialist Zwettler takes that reference a step further.
"They're like our guardian angels," he said. "They're our direct link to the angels in the sky, the birds who prey on the enemy targets."
For these two young infantrymen, who proudly call themselves 'grunts,' JTACs contribute significantly to their ability to fight another day.
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