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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The only incoming fire the 603rd Air Control Squadron has to worry about during training exercises this month is an errant shot off the tees of the nearby base golf course.

But dozens of airmen from the unit experienced the real thing earlier this year.

The 603rd returned from a six-month rotation in Iraq in June. During that stint, it completed a move from Baghdad International Airport to Balad Air Base, trucking all its equipment in nearly two dozen convoys.

Staff Sgt. Jason DeLucy, who was on most of those missions, said a few convoys came under small-arms fire from a distance. But none of them had to stop and there were no injuries.

Still, the experience made him realize that training for such missions should be taken seriously.

“The training is pretty thorough and fits with what we experienced,” he said.

Because the unit wasn’t ambushed and had some help from the Army in clearing roadside bombs in Iraq, this training probably goes a bit further, he said, because it covers scenarios that didn’t happen.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Spears, who took over the squadron after it returned to Aviano, said the 603rd has to be prepared to fend for itself and know everything possible about traveling by convoy.

“In order to get to where we need to go to accomplish the mission, this is where you start,” she said. “It’s a basic requirement for this squadron to have all the basic skills.”

Basic to many Army units, maybe. But not to airmen.

So in addition to loading up and unpacking a small amount of their equipment, airmen have been drilling on setting up tents and camps, establishing perimeters and training on how to properly handle weapons and use protective gear in a convoy setting. Airmen who went through the drill faced ambushes, roadside bomb scenarios and protests designed to stall the convoys.

First Lt. Ryan Finan said the only real scare was to golfers who were surprised when heavily armed airmen quickly arrived and set up camp near one of the holes. The squadron was using an area adjacent to the golf course, because it already had other equipment there.

Spears said the squadron needs to be familiar with all its tasks, because it could be called to deploy again at “any time.” She said she’s heard of no such deployments, but there are only five air control squadrons in the Air Force — including the 606th Air Control Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.

Such squadrons are not included in the Aerospace Expeditionary Force rotations. Unlike most airmen sent to locations in the desert, air control squadrons deploy as units. They also can spend a longer time in theater, as evidenced by the 603rd’s Iraq deployment.

“It’s probably about as close to the Army as the Air Force gets,” Finan said with a smile, summing up all the differences.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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