Subscribe

(See photos at end of story)

KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Coils of waist-high barbed wire stretch around buildings with blacked-out windows. Doors of cavernous aircraft shelters are shut tight to protect jets against sniper bullets.

Piles of sandbags dot the sidewalks, and even though it’s mid-afternoon, the streets of this seaside base are eerily deserted.

But the clinic is bustling.

Nearly a dozen medical workers kneel around the patient, a sturdy, brown-haired airman who has had a heart attack and now lies on the carpeted floor of a waiting room. They give him oxygen and pump his chest.

As they work, a high-pitched siren begins to wail. Medics whip on protective rubber gloves and gas masks.

The room becomes quieter as people talk in muted, tinny voices, some using hand gestures instead of trying to shout through voice filters on their masks.

But they don’t give the downed airman a gas mask, no matter what may be swirling in the air. To do so would mean certain death — he can’t breathe on his own, and the medics can’t breathe for him through the rubber mouthpiece and plastic face shield.

“You’re seeing something I’ve never seen before,” said Maj. Charles Flow with Kunsan’s medical community. “We don’t get a lot of these in here.”

Precious minutes pass, and finally the patient takes a breath. The medics place a gas mask on his face, roll him to the hospital’s emergency room and place him on a stretcher. A few minutes later, he pulls off his gas mask and slides off the stretcher, his face sweaty from the gas mask but otherwise healthy.

The airman is an actor in Kunsan’s quarterly training exercise, and the chemical attack was just a drill. But if either had been real, the man might not have survived.

“Putting his gas mask on, you know he’s going to die at that point,” said Capt. Radcliffe Myers. “You hope it’s just a minimal chemical attack. It’s just the lesser of the two evils.”

As real as possible

Exercises like this one — the five-day Peninsula-wide Operational Readiness Exercise, which also took place at Osan Air Base — are a part of life at military bases around the world, a way for troops and commanders to practice what they would do if there was a real attack.

Life can change dramatically for troops during those exercises, with long work hours and restrictions on what they can do and where they can go during their off-hours. But Kunsan may be the only U.S. air base in the world to completely shut down during an exercise, said spokeswoman Capt. Tiffany Payette.

That means no commissary, no base exchange, no coffee shop, no restaurants and no gym for five days. Whenever airmen leave their dorms, they must wear chemical gear weighing 30 to 45 pounds, and during staged attacks, they don air masks and protective rubber gloves for sometimes hours at a time.

They eat Meals, Ready to Eat and whatever food they’ve stocked up on before the exercise. They work 12-hour shifts, but sleep is often interrupted by the sound of fake mortar attacks, bugle calls signaling a ground attack, and loudspeaker announcements telling airmen what level of protective gear they must wear.

It’s all designed to make the attack seem as real as possible.

“The quality of training that you get depends a lot on reality,” said Maj. Craig Simmons, 8th Fighter Wing chief of plans and programs.

“If you can put yourself in the mindset that you are fighting in a real emergency — in your bed and hear the sirens going off — it inserts an extra sense of realism that this is actually going on,” Simmons said.

Exercises are especially important at Kunsan because airmen are typically stationed here for one year, which means that during any given exercise, approximately 30 percent are participating in their first one at the base.

Unlike at Osan, Kunsan officials are able to shut down the base because airmen cannot bring their families here.

Exercise on display

Pilots fly 90 to 100 sorties a day during an exercise, up from about 20 sorties during a non-exercise day.

That means more work for everybody on this base, whose mission is to get F-16 fighters into the air.

“It’s as close as you can get to the pressure of combat,” said F-16 pilot Capt. Barry Murphy. “There’s bombs going off and there’s things constantly happening at once. It’s as close as you’re going to get to the real thing.”

Their pre-flight briefings are shortened from about an hour to 10 minutes, and their missions are more complex — more like what they would be flying in combat. Everything they do in the air is graded by a panel of experienced pilots.

“It’s a lot of pressure on us. The younger guys who haven’t done an exercise before, they get really nervous because it’s all on display,” Murphy said.

Through it all, airmen wear heavy chemical gear that makes simple tasks difficult. It’s worst during South Korea’s humid summers, especially on the flightline, where the combination of pavement and running jet engines can raise temperatures to 120 degrees.

Sometimes you save yourself

But the realism of an exercise can only go so far. Even practicing for emergencies — like the heart attack patient at the hospital — can’t prepare airmen for everything that could happen.

“What would we have done if there was actually gas in the room? Would people have panicked and ran?” asked Maj. Greg Sweitzer. Even the amount of time they spent trying to revive the patient could have changed if the hospital were under a direct attack.

“If we’re all going to die to save someone who’s already dying, we probably call him expectant,” Sweitzer said. “If we die, we can’t save anybody, so we try to save ourselves.”

The exercise reminds the airmen of how tough their jobs can be.

“You can cerebrally know something, but until you actually have to do it — especially under the stresses of this exercise — you don’t really know how hard it is,” said Maj. Matthew Ostler.

Defending the base is an adrenaline rush for some

KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — It was a clear November afternoon when nearly a dozen enemy fighters crept behind a stone wall at the base of Little Coyote. , Their mission: Get to the top of the hill, one of two overlooking Kunsan Air Base, and take a strategic foxhole that would give them a clear view of the base.

“I’d rather be up there on that hill behind that brush,” one fighter said to another, pointing at a nearby hill covered in scrubby pine trees. From their hiding spot, they could see the helmet of an airman — one of their targets — peeking through the trees atop the hill.

They quietly scrambled up the steep, rocky hillside, through chest-high grass and gravel paths, and attacked Little Coyote on two sides.

One by one, the group of airmen playing invaders during a peninsula-wide training exercise went down. In 15 minutes, it was over.

“We got beat. They killed everybody,” said Master Sgt. Dan Delzingaro.

In this case, that was a good thing. If the airmen defending Little Coyote — mostly members of Kunsan’s 8th Security Forces Squadron — hadn’t taken out the invaders, it would have meant they weren’t doing their job.

The attack was a surprise to the dozen airmen protecting Little Coyote, who had been on the hill since early in the morning. They were tired, and just taken off the gas masks they had been wearing for an hour and a half during a mock chemical attack. Some were still trying to catch their breath.

To Airman 1st Class Erick Lee, the attack felt almost real.

“My adrenaline was going. I was just ready to get in a firefight,” he said. “I was just waiting for something to pop off.”

He hasn’t been deployed to the desert yet, but after various exercises at Kunsan the past two years, he feels ready for combat.

“They’re not fully realistic, but they give you the extra training you need for a real-world operation,” he said. “If it’s going to be like this, I think I could handle it.”

— Ashley Rowland

RELATED STORY:Playing the part

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up