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Airman Joshua Nyenhius waits for transport in the bed of a pickup with "victims" Airman Basic Natasha Bowen and Airman 1st Class Brian Carroll during the exercise at Misawa.
Airman Joshua Nyenhius waits for transport in the bed of a pickup with "victims" Airman Basic Natasha Bowen and Airman 1st Class Brian Carroll during the exercise at Misawa. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Airman Joshua Nyenhius waits for transport in the bed of a pickup with "victims" Airman Basic Natasha Bowen and Airman 1st Class Brian Carroll during the exercise at Misawa.
Airman Joshua Nyenhius waits for transport in the bed of a pickup with "victims" Airman Basic Natasha Bowen and Airman 1st Class Brian Carroll during the exercise at Misawa. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Tech. Sgt. Robert Petermann radios in information on four casualties to the wing’s command-and-control center.
Tech. Sgt. Robert Petermann radios in information on four casualties to the wing’s command-and-control center. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Jennifer Nesbit is checked for chemical contaminants.
Staff Sgt. Jennifer Nesbit is checked for chemical contaminants. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)
Tech. Sgt. Robert Petermann, his face dripping with sweat after removing his chemical mask, stands in the vehicle management flight's mobile command post, where maps, phone numbers, keys and tools are stored.
Tech. Sgt. Robert Petermann, his face dripping with sweat after removing his chemical mask, stands in the vehicle management flight's mobile command post, where maps, phone numbers, keys and tools are stored. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The “giant voice” rumbles over the intercom in the wee hours before dawn. Countless airmen are awake, heeding the call to don their chemical masks and black rubber gloves. The 35th Fighter Wing hasn’t slept much lately.

The wing went into exercise mode Oct. 1, marking the final and most intense training in preparation for its first Operational Readiness Inspection. From Oct. 20 through Oct. 27, a Pacific Air Forces team of more than 100 inspectors will evaluate its ability to deploy and receive troops, as well as defend its home station from a fictional deployed location.

Maj. James Merchant, chief of wing inspections, said the wing’s 3,500 airmen are ready for the challenge. “I think we’re going to do very well,” he said.

PACAF, several years ago, changed its inspection format: The previously separate Combat Employment Readiness Inspection and the Initial Readiness Response Inspection were rolled into one. Now, PACAF bases undergo an Operational Readiness Inspection about every 45 months. Misawa has the advantage of learning from other bases, such as Yokota Air Base, which already have been put through the intense review. PACAF draws augmentee inspectors from across the Pacific, including Misawa, to help evaluate other wings.

Though the base has an idea of what to expect when the PACAF team arrives, the wing is practicing for every possible scenario, said Chief Master Sgt. Brett Allison, 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron superintendent.

“We’re a fighter wing, so we go to the fight,” he said. “The training needs to be more intense.

“Our objective is to be tougher than the inspection.”

And that’s been the nature of the exercise: tough and intense. Airmen have been pulling 12-hour shifts, down to the American Forces Network disc jockeys who pass along exercise information between music breaks.

Airmen got used to showing up to work expecting two things: long hours — and the unexpected.

The vehicle management flight worked out of at least three different locations during the exercise, which was to wrap up late Tuesday night. When “missiles” destroyed their main complex last week, they moved to a second building. But Tuesday morning, a team of wing exercise evaluators knocked on the door and handed a piece of paper to Senior Master Sgt. Ed Jones, the flight’s vehicle operations manager.

“Listen up,” Jones hollered, reading the script. “Exercise, exercise, exercise. There’s major missile impact right here. All vehicles within this building are destroyed, so go to your bug-out location right now.”

Within seconds, airmen put on their chemical masks and rubber gloves and went outside the building — where, as evaluators watched, first-term airmen, playing victims, moaned and writhed on the ground. In their haste to get out, several airmen did not see a fake missile lying on the asphalt; one of them kicked it, instantly killing a group of four, the evaluators ruled. Dejected, the victims sat out the rest of the scenario until someone carted them off to the base morgue.

“We ran right beside a UXO without noticing it,” said Staff Sgt. James Houser. “We were heads up, instead of heads down.”

Some of the challenges of such an exercise are making the scenarios as real as possible, Allison said. When the situation allows, a script will call for smoke — courtesy of the fire department’s smoke machine — or a loud bang, simulating the sound of a missile strike, from a bird gun or ground-burst simulator.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, may be maintaining the combat mind-set. At work, Merchant explained, “You’re operating with the mentality of going to war — and then you stop by Popeye’s on the way home.”

Migrated
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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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