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Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesse Reddam, assigned to the 86th Maintenance Squadron, practices the "smash" move along with other combat skills classmates during the rifle fighting portion of the course Thursday at Ensiedlerhof Air Station in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesse Reddam, assigned to the 86th Maintenance Squadron, practices the "smash" move along with other combat skills classmates during the rifle fighting portion of the course Thursday at Ensiedlerhof Air Station in Kaiserslautern, Germany. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

(See video at end of story)

EINSIEDLERHOF AIR STATION, Germany — With bodies planted face-down on the ground, so close they could almost taste the wet dirt under their noses, airmen with the 435th Air Base Wing slid along Thursday in a low crawl while cradling an M-16 rifle.

Some grunted, others groaned. Most stopped a few times to catch their breath.

After 20 yards of trying to elude detection by an imaginary enemy, the 50 or so airmen stood with mud staining their armored vests and helmets.

Welcome to combat skills training, a new course now required for all 435th airmen within 120 days of deploying to a war zone or any area qualifying for hostile fire pay.

“It’s to get people prepared to go into theater and to be able to survive and excel,” said Col. Don Bacon, 435th wing commander, who in May returned from a year-long deployment in Iraq.

The Air Force mandates 19 hours of combat skills training, a requirement that’s already been widely adopted across the service. Led by four airmen with extensive experience in war zones, the 435th stood up its first class on Nov. 12. So far, 200 airmen have completed the course, said the instructors, noting it’s open to airmen from units outside the 435th.

The curriculum is divided into equal parts classroom instruction and field training. Airmen review how to handle an M-16 and discuss rules of engagement and how to react under fire; they learn the proper way to wear 35 pounds of combat gear and that a “butt stroke” is for self-defense.

Most challenging, say the airmen, is the field portion, where the information they learn in class is put to the test — in all sorts of weather.

“Rain, snow, sleet, hail, it doesn’t matter,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Graves, noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of combat skills training with the 569th U.S. Forces Police Squadron.

A typical afternoon outside may include wielding the M-16 like a martial arts weapon and practicing fire team formations, with laps up and down the field in between. The run in full gear is designed simply to tire them out, says Graves.

“You’re not always going to be at 100 percent,” he said. “You need to train like that.”

The instructors also want airmen to be prepared for the unexpected.

“A lot of them think they’ll never have to see a combat environment,” said Senior Airman Christopher Bidwell, a combat skills instructor with the 435th Security Forces Squadron. “As we’ve learned in the past, no airmen, Marine, soldier or sailor is exempt from the war. Anything can happen.”

For that very reason, some airmen said Friday they didn’t mind the extra training, despite the wet, cold conditions.

“Chances are I won’t need it but I’m glad that I have it just in case,” said Staff Sgt. Callie McLain, 25, an aerospace ground equipment journeyman from Portland, Ore., who will soon deploy to Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base for a second time.

The training, she said, “was physically challenging, but it was fun at the same time. It was good to get back to basics.”

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