Combat skills training creates stronger Airmen

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- I returned April 18 from two weeks of training that I may never use -- two weeks of crawling through mud, running with 40 pounds of body armor strapped to my shoulders and head and eating field rations. 

I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. 

The training I attended was the Air Force's Advanced Contingency Skills Training Course, offered at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center on Fort Dix, N.J. I learned how to recognize an improvised explosive device, move tactically in open fields and urban terrain, operate as a member of a convoy and apply a tourniquet in less than 10 seconds. 

Fort Dix is co-located with McGuire Air Force Base, and planes fly in and out of the area constantly. I quickly grew accustomed to the sound of airpower, whether it was the roar of a C-17 Globemaster III or the high-pitched whine of a KC-135 Stratotanker as they flew above our training areas and dormitories. 

The classes were hands-on and immersive -- the way they should be -- because there's only so much you can learn through a slideshow presentation. To really learn how to low crawl, you have to be in the dirt, taking notice of each blade of grass as you pass it by at a gruelingly slow pace. To really learn how to spot an IED, you have to look for it in the field, where it might be concealed under brush or dirt or placed just behind a tree. To really learn how to lift a litter with a 200-pound body over a six-foot wall, you have to be one set of arms in the team that makes it happen as AK-47 rifles sound off from 100 meters away. 

And while you learn how to do all these things, you're also learning how to work in a team -- how to shoot, move and communicate so instinctively that the four members of your fire team act not as individuals, but as four parts of a single entity. 

You learn how your Wingmen will react in a hostile environment, because you have to. The sounds and sights and smells of combat are all there. The instructors even manage, in some blocks of instruction, to incorporate the sensation of pain through simulated rounds called simunitions. 

Instead of lead, the rounds carry a payload of non-toxic detergent that spatters when it hits clothing. Students and instructors wear protective coverings that resemble gas masks and protect their faces and heads. The pain is comparable to actually being shot, especially when you take a round to your kidney or the back of your thigh. 

But the pain serves its own purpose. Just as a child might learn the hard way not to touch a hot stove, students learn to stay low, use cover and avoid silhouetting themselves in open windows and doorways. 

Our class learned about some of the improvised explosive devices used in theater. I won't go into detail, except to say that the sophistication evident in some of the IEDs is frightening. And we learned how to operate in convoys -- a critical skill given how many Airmen will be part of at least one convoy during their deployment. At the end, we put it all together - fighting and saving lives amidst the sounds of simulated gunfire, IED explosions and rocket-propelled grenades. 

"We hope you never have to use the skills you learned during your two weeks in this class," Tech. Sgt. Jesse Pate, one of the instructors from the USAF EC's 421st Combat Training Squadron, said to us as we received our graduation certificates. "But if you do, we're confident that you'll be able to survive and operate and come back home safely." 

The training reinforced for me how much I needed to know in order to be an asset to the war effort when I deploy. It also reinforced the meaning of the statement, "I am an American Airman." 

I spent two weeks being an American Airman in every sense of the word -- and I'd do it again in a New Jersey minute.