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Members of the Spangdahlem Air Base Saber Drill Team practice with cadets from the Air Force Academy on Wednesday in Germany. The Air Force Academy and Spangdahlem Air Base have the Air Force’s only two saber drill teams.
Members of the Spangdahlem Air Base Saber Drill Team practice with cadets from the Air Force Academy on Wednesday in Germany. The Air Force Academy and Spangdahlem Air Base have the Air Force’s only two saber drill teams. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — The 3-foot saber flying through the air is aimed at Staff Sgt. Ernesto Otero, but he doesn’t flinch or step away.

As the stainless steel sword continues to fall toward him, Otero stares straight ahead, stretches out his hand and softly catches the saber on cue.

The one-handed catch is just one part of the Eifel Sabre Drill Team’s routine, which members perform in ceremonies throughout Europe to promote a positive image of the Air Force and honor military tradition and precision.

Spangdahlem’s team practiced with the Air Force Academy’s saber drill team this week in Germany to share ideas and learn new moves.

There are only a few saber drill teams in the Air Force, but interest in the teams has grown in the past three years. More bases are thinking about forming their own groups and have asked the academy’s team, which formed in 1961, for help. The cadets have created a CD to help bases such as Spangdahlem build their own squads.

“I think just because it’s something different,” said academy cadet Rhoshonda McGruder of the increased interest. “A lot of people have been exposed to the rifle drill through [ROTC]. And then they see a saber and they’re like, ‘My mom told me not to throw knives but here are these guys over here.’ It’s just something different and new.”

Col. Dave Goldfein, the commander of the Spangdahlem-based 52nd Fighter Wing, came up with the idea to create the Air Force’s first saber drill team in Europe last year. Since its inception, the group has performed for audiences across the continent.

First Lt. Brian Cooper, a maintenance flight commander for the 52nd Equipment Maintenance Squadron, said that although the team is only one year old, the more people see it, the more requests it gets to perform at military functions throughout Europe.

“These guys are really unique in the fact they will risk getting cut or having an actually sharp piece of metal thrown in front of their face,” said Cooper, who commands the team.

The swords are not razor sharp, but they can be dangerous.

Senior Airman Josh Vanderbeck got poked in the ear during one of the team’s practices.

“Everyone was telling me I should go to the hospital, but I didn’t,” he said. “I just got a piece of tissue from the Honor Guard room, stopped the bleeding and kept going.”

Members of the wing’s drill team come from the base’s Honor Guard, which has the duty of carrying the U.S. flag and service flags at ceremonies and honoring servicemembers and veterans at funerals.

To join the saber drill team, an airman must have good hand-eye coordination and be motivated to learn the precision maneuvers, Otero said. It takes three to six months for a rookie to master the entire performance.

“It’s not for everyone,” said Otero, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the team who is a nutritionist with the 52nd Aerospace Medical Squadron.

Members of the team come from various jobs on base and must find a way to squeeze in practice three times a week. Although Spangdahlem’s team is in demand, deployments and transfers this summer will mean the group will lose nearly the entire team.

“Right now, we are actively recruiting,” Cooper said.

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