By 1st Lt. Susan Penning, 193rd Special Operations WingAugust 29, 2019
BOISE, Idaho -- Special warfare Airmen with the 148th Air Support Operations Squadron, Pennsylvania Air National Guard, headed west this summer to Idaho's Orchard Combat Training Center near Boise to immerse with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade for some vital air-to-ground combat training.
The vast, rugged terrain and desert-like climate provided a realistic backdrop for what these Tactical Air Control Party Specialists will likely encounter in a war theater.
Throughout their three weeks in Idaho, the 148th ASOS TACPS -- some of whom have deployed several times and others who are preparing to deploy -- worked to hone their battlefield skills in navigation, communication and Army integration.
When deployed, these Air Force warfighters embed with units -- primarily from the Army -- on the frontlines, with the incredible responsibility of calling in airstrikes on precise targets at the right moments.
Highly trained and conditioned, these Airmen go through rigorous physical, mental and technical training to ensure they're prepared for demanding conditions and to provide their team with the firepower needed for mission success.
Coordinating and delivering that firepower is a complex process requiring communication from the top down.
Working in the career field at the brigade level, 1st Lt. Tyler Trocano, 148th ASOS air liaison officer, served as an enlisted TACP before commissioning.
"I work closely with brigade staff to integrate our air piece into the ground plan. We work out the details with fire cell, operations and intelligence teams," Trocano said.
"I'll be talking to fire support, primarily artillery and mortar fire, coordinating to make sure they can complete their missions and we can complete ours. We'll also coordinate with the Air Support Operations Center to help figure out where air support is coming from and where it's going," he added.
When the time comes for tactical delivery, it's high adrenaline -- and high stakes -- an environment that forces TACPS to fall back on their training.
These Airmen begin their initial training with three blocks of instruction, mainly focused on physical and mental conditioning, land navigation, small unit tactics and field training.
"I was dropped off in the middle of the Florida jungle. I had a start and endpoint, a map and compass. Then I had a designated amount of time to find my way. I grew up outside the city, so being left in the middle of the woods forced me to develop this 'never quit' mentality. You resort to your training and block out all the noise in your head," Trocano said.
"We would wake up at 0400 and work out for one to four hours, whatever our instructor thought we needed that day," added Senior Airman Ian Samodio, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the 148th ASOS. TACPS earn the title of JTAC after completing additional training that allows them to communicate with independently and control aircraft.
"Bear crawls, 12-mile rucks … sometimes I would think, 'If I stop now, the pain will be over.' The small goals I set for myself, like, 'Just go one more mile, one more hour,' got me through it. This makes you grow up fast. You have to learn to take care of yourself, to endure the suck," Samodio said.
After field training, the Airmen begin an in-depth study of all the airframes, communications and weapons capabilities they'll have available to them in a combat situation.
For example, in Idaho the 148th ASOS team worked with A-10 aircraft from the 124th Fighter Wing, an ANG unit stationed at Gowen Field ANG Base, Boise. The A-10 Thunderbolt II has been historically known for its maneuverability at low airspeeds and altitude, and boasts a highly accurate weapons-delivery platform. This aircraft can loiter near battle areas for extended periods and operate under 1,000-foot ceilings with 1.5-mile visibility, making it a vital tool in the JTAC toolbox.
Controlling aircraft, with lives and the outcome of battles potentially -- and perhaps even singularly -- placed in their hands, it's clear these Airmen shoulder immense responsibility.
"I wanted to join this career field because it would allow me to control aircraft, to have a larger responsibility," said Senior Airman Ian Whelan, a 23-year old JTAC with the 148th ASOS.
"When you're the fire's lifeline, there's no room for failing your comrades. In that first firefight, when adrenaline is rushing and the nerves grip you, you concentrate on that first drop. You double-check your work, and you always fall back on your training. You work to be as accurate as possible," said JTAC Tech. Sgt. Devon Kuny, battalion air liaison with the 148th ASOS.
Understanding what's on the line when they deploy makes JTACs serious about taking full advantage when they get field training opportunities.
Tech. Sgt. Daniel Nicholson, 148th ASOS chief of weapons and tactics, has been a JTAC with the unit for nearly 13 years. He worked closely with his team in Idaho to help them hone their skillset.
"Our training preps us for what we can expect," he said. "At that moment when rounds are coming at you, your focus narrows to getting that aircraft on station, returning the fire, and dropping the bombs so we can all go home."
Nicholson recalls a time while deployed when his team took enemy fire.
"It was an air assault at night. We took fire from rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. We lost one man and eight others were wounded. It's hard to go back and replay that moment because I'm always thinking, 'What could we have done differently?'"
Nicholson glanced over his shoulders at his teammates.
"I want to train them even better than I was trained. I want to help them react quicker," he said. "I want them to be prepared for anything because with what we do, seconds matter."
Several members of the 148th ASOS are preparing to deploy soon.