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The Dallas Morning News February 10, 2005

Airmen stay grounded

Trainees at Texas base to help Army escort convoys on deadly Iraqi roads

By David McLemore

CAMP BULLIS, Texas - On a cold, foggy morning in the Texas Hill Country, Airman 1st Class Danny Gastelum bounces in the back of a rattling 5-ton truck, searching the passing live oaks and mesquite.

A sudden pop, followed by a puff of white smoke, simulates an attack by insurgents. For the moment, the 23-year-old airman - a mechanic at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California - isn't playing make-believe. He's become an infantryman.

The same holds true for Air Force Tech Sgt. Michael Brady, a heavy-equipment driver at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. And for Airman 1st Class Kevin Moss, a truck mechanic assigned to Lakenheath air base in England.

The three are among 100 or so Air Force personnel from all over the world who've been called to Lackland Air Force Base to train as convoy security - one of the most dangerous and in-demand jobs in Iraq.

"Oh, it's definitely a different Air Force than the one I signed up for," Sgt. Brady says during a break in learning another battlefield role: combat lifesaver. "It's a big change. At first I wasn't sure I could do this. Now, I'm confident I will."

Lackland designed and launched the course six months ago to help the manpower-strapped Army with convoy security.

More than a thousand men and women - mostly mechanics, forklift operators and base shuttle-bus drivers - have graduated and are serving in Iraq.

As the convoy forms a protective circle around a Humvee with a "wounded" driver, Airman Gastelum lays down suppressing fire from his M-4 with fiber-optic sights. Until recently, the last time he held a rifle was in basic training - an M-16.

"In the back of my mind, I know it's not real. But I have to treat it as real," Airman Gastelum says. "This is the stuff that will save lives."

More smoke, yellow this time, signals a simulated medevac. The diesel trucks rumble louder and gears shift as the convoy lumbers into motion again.

"We're OK," Airman Gastelum yells to the driver. "Everyone's OK. We're good to go."

Motley crew

While the majority of convoy training teams are Air Force transportation specialists, the Air Force has also called on logistics, communications and other support forces, as well as Air Force police who normally provide base security.

"They are learning the tactics they will use in Iraq. They're driving the same kind of vehicles and using the same kinds of radios the Army uses," says Master Sgt. Phil Coolberth, who designed the first basic convoy combat course. "And we have a steady flow of [intelligence] that helps them learn the tactics the enemy will use against them.

"It's not like anything we've done before," he adds.

But "turning bus drivers into fighters isn't ... an aberration" either, says Sgt. Coolberth. "Every airman is a warrior. And we train them to be able to carry out the mission. There are no front lines in this war. Everyone here understands that."

Sgt. Brady certainly does. For the 31-year-old Mississippi native who's spent his 12-year Air Force career as a heavy-equipment driver, it's a big change. He now carries an M-4, wears body armor and is learning the intricacies of guiding Army convoys through hostile territory. Very shortly, he'll be doing it for real in Iraq.

"It's a new kind of war," says Sgt Brady. "We all have to adapt."

The call to the Air Force to provide something other than combat air support makes perfect sense, says John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, which analyzes the military mission in Iraq. It marks the first time Air National Guard noncombatant personnel have been mobilized in support of Army combat operations.

"This is not a war of front lines and traditional combat. This is a war of convoy ambushes and car bombs," Mr. Pike says. "The Army has been turned inside out looking for additional soldiers to fight the war. With the Army and Marines' personnel systems under great pressure, it's been a very different war for the Navy and Air Force."

Staff Sgt. Toby Eiter, 29, agrees. A security forces specialist at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, he graduated from the course last year and served a tour in Iraq. He's back in Texas working as part of the training cadre.

"This is changing attitudes about the Air Force, both inside and out," he says. "If civilians think about the Air Force as a combat force, they think pilots. Even in the Air Force, people often think of it as a 9-to-5 job."

He gestures to the line of trucks and the camouflage-uniformed troops hunkered down, rifles constantly moving, looking for targets.

"These guys come to us as truck drivers and mechanics. They don't see themselves in ground combat," Sgt. Eiter says. "Pretty soon, though, that changes. And you can tell who joined for college and who wanted to be in the military."

Unfamiliar skills

During an intensive six-week training cycle, the airmen-turned-grunts learn to use weapons and tactics they've never encountered. Men and women who haven't fired an M-16 since basic training become intimately familiar with such combat tools as the M-4 carbine, Squad Automatic Weapon and .50-caliber machine gun.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be doing this when I signed up," says Airman Moss, the 19-year-old mechanic from the Lakenheath air base in England. "But it's my job now."

Airman Moss speaks as he and three other BC3 troops keep watch in the back of a 5-ton truck as it hurtles down a potholed road at Camp Bullis.

The 36-mile training convoy has already been hit once by simulated terrorists - otherwise known as the training cadre, many of whom have already served one tour in Iraq.

Airman Moss gestures toward his M-4 and says: "After a while, this just becomes an extension of my arm. It's a tool. Just like my wrench."

The trainees also get hands-on practice with Army field radios used in Iraq and global positioning systems. They spend long days practicing urban navigation and convoy operations.

As a result, they learn to get a line of 10 or more trucks through hostile territory safely.

Although the Department of Defense does not break out convoy deaths from the casualty list, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimate that there have been about 100 casualties per month from roadside bombs, also known as IEDs or improvised explosive devices.

New medics

About one-fourth of the BC3 trainees are selected for additional training as combat lifesavers.

The screening process is fairly simple: Trainees are asked if the sight of blood bothers them. Those who say no - and those who are interested - get the training.

They learn how to start IVs and to provide basic wound and burn care to get the injured GI off the battlefield alive and to a field hospital. The goal, BC3 planners say, is to make sure that every vehicle they operate for convoy security in Iraq will have at least one certified combat lifesaver.

More than a few of the Air Force "infantry" are women.

The BC3 trainers decline to give specifics on the number of people trained. Sgt. Coolberth says they don't differentiate between, men or women, active duty or National Guard, "they're all warriors."

Airman 1st Class Heather Moran, 19, waits her turn to prove her skills as a combat lifesaver. A forklift operator at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, she finds she likes the idea of learning combat skills.

"The women are doing just as much as the guys. There's nothing different," she says. "What we're learning can save lives. And it shows we can do anything. All of us. We can handle it."

Help from above

In addition to more convoy security, the Army has asked the Air Force to extend air operations over Iraqi roadways, particularly in the Sunni Triangle, where about 91 percent of all U.S. casualties occur.

"Many cargo operations were flying into airfields that were located in ... the most dangerous areas of Iraq," says Army Brig. Gen. Mark Scheid, who's in charge of the U.S. Central Command's distribution operations center. "Truck convoys would then drive outward from these airfields across the most dangerous highways in the world in order to deliver supplies to the military forces. There had to be a smarter way to get supplies to our forces."

Before leaving Camp Bullis, the newly minted Air Force "infantry" will take part in a 96-hour exercise to put their training to practice. They'll spend days on continual convoys, subjected to an ever-changing array of simulated terrorist attacks, roadside bombs and obstacles. Then they'll head to Fort Hood for a five-day combat live-fire exercise.

They are then ready for deployment to Iraq to lead convoys through some of the most dangerous real estate in the world.

BY THE NUMBERS

9,000: Number of trucks operating daily in Iraq

930: Military escorts

100: Casualties per month from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs

207: Civilian drivers killed since June 2003*

50 percent: Combat deaths attributed to IEDs

1,000 plus: Men and women trained as convoy security in last six months

*An incomplete estimate by the Iraq Coalition Casualties Count was based on data released by employers. Not all private contractors report Iraq casualties publicly.

SOURCES: Defense Daily citing the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Iraq Coalition Casualties Count


Copyright 2005, The Dallas Morning News