Final exam
1st Lt. Patrick McNamara studies coordinates as part of his final test at the Joint Fires Observer Course, which he passed on Dec. 11.

FORT SILL, Okla.--The Joint Fires Observer Course just produced its 2,000th graduate. That may not seem like a significant number, but to those in theater it is critical.

"The more JFOs we have in the field the more area we can cover," said Lt. Col. Rustan Schwichtenberg, commander of the Fort Sill Air Force detachment and officer in charge of the course. A JFO is a highly trained service member capable of requesting, adjusting and controlling all surface to surface fires and assisting with Type 2 and 3 close air support, close combat aviation and performing autonomous terminal guidance operations. Their job is designed to help US military services assist each other on the battlefield as a joint force.

"We are the eyes on the battlefield so we have a huge impact on what Joint Terminal Attack Controllers can see and what they don't see and they have the ultimate control over whether the bomb gets released on a target or not," said 1st Lt. Patrick McNamara.

Out of the three military installations training JFOs for the past four years, Fort Sill has been the main source generating 1,700 of them. The latest class tested and graduated on Dec. 11.

For many Soldiers and airmen, the lessons they learned in the two week course are about to be put to use.

"If you mess up you have people's lives in your hands. It's a stressful course because you're trying to put yourself in the situation in real life because most of us are going down range soon so you want to learn this. You want to be a good JFO, you don't want to miss anything because it's going to be real life pretty soon," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Donnelly, honor graduate.

While right now many Soldiers are enjoying time off with family for the holidays, some decided to go through the JFO course instead.

"Me and my guys decided to come down here because this is going to help our company out more in the long run instead of seeing our families for a little bit. We're going to see them for Christmas, but this is going to save lives, so that's why we did it," said McNamara.

Although more students started the course, many never finished.

"It's a demanding course for something that is potentially very, very dangerous. Anytime you're playing with a 2,000-pound bomb you have to be very precise. It's attention to detail," said 1st Lt. Mike Simpson.

"It's a challenging course. The hardest part was definitely the simulations because they made it so that you had to catch your own mistakes," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Gentile, the 2,000th graduate.

For the students, the training doesn't end after two weeks. To stay qualified as a joint fires observer they have to be retested every six months.

"This is not something like I shot an M-16 five years ago, I can tear it down in my sleep with a blindfold on. It's not the same as once trained always trained," said Schwichtenberg. To assist with keeping the JFOs current with their skill sets, instructors and commanders are in the process of creating a better sustainment system. They're doing so by using the Army's digital training management system.

The new system will show all of the observer's information online, tracking their training and qualifications as well as what training they need. They expect the system to be online in April.

"That will do away with the training folders on paper, and we'll also be able to flag them at their home units. Their unit JFO managers will be able to see what events they need to gain currency to keep their qualifications, schedule them for those things and they can go over to the simulators or go over to their local Air Force units on an Army post," said Schwichtenberg.

In the meantime, the new graduates have training support packages available on Joint Knowledge Online. There's currently a downloadable document that details exactly what they need to do to stay qualified. It also provides legitimate scenarios for simulation exercises so they can be proactive on their own.

"We're trying to use technology to keep the highest qualified war fighter on the battlefield," said Schwichtenberg. "I believe in [the] JFO [course]. I wouldn't be standing up here as a fighter pilot if I didn't truly believe that it is a fundamental way of how we're going to do business on the battlefield."

The Army's goal is to have more than 2,000 JFOs qualified and current at any given time.

Page last updated Fri December 18th, 2009 at 09:33