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Thin Blue Line, Part 3: Travis AFB CATM team key to weapons training

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

(Editor’s Note: This is the last of a three-part series on security forces.)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – His heart races as he glares through the sight of his rifle preparing to engage the enemy 300 meters away.

He takes a deep breath and pauses for a moment.

“Fire!” shouts the instructor. He slowly squeezes the trigger.

A loud bang can be heard miles away as he blasts a small hole through the target.

Seven Airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Wing and 821st Contingency Response Group participated in an M-4 Rifle/Carbine Air Force Qualification Course May 27 at the Travis AFB combat arms training and maintenance range. The Airmen are required to complete the training every six months to maintain readiness.

Capt. Gregory Speirs, 621st CRW legal advisor, was one of the Airmen in the class.

“As a judge advocate, I did not have many opportunities to fire the M-4 before joining the CRW, as my focus was primarily on prosecuting courts-martial, advising active duty and retired individuals on estate planning, advising commanders on contracts and running a tax law center,” Speirs said.

According to the 621st CRW website, the wing’s mission is to rapidly deploy to open airfields and establish, expand, sustain and coordinate air mobility operations.

Being a part of the CRW means Speirs could be called upon to support a variety of missions around the world on short notice, he said.

“We could go anywhere in a couple hours to build an airbase in a potentially austere environment – it is of extreme importance to be as much of a complete Airman as possible,” he said. “This means the attorney doesn’t solely work contracts, fiscal, ethical or rules of engagement issues – it means the attorney is also involved in digging trenches, erecting structures and being capable of defending an airbase. The CRW-specific M-4 certification provides us vital skills for future success.”

The responsibility for providing firearms training for 621st CRW Airmen, as well as Airmen assigned to the 60th Air Mobility Wing and 349th AMW at Travis AFB rests with the 60th Security Forces Squadron CATM team.

“We train Airmen on 10 different weapon systems,” said Staff Sgt. Samuel Richards, 60th SFS noncommissioned officer in charge of CATM. “We provide training in support of annual qualifications, deployments and for Airmen required to qualify on a weapon prior to leaving on their next assignment.”

Richards manages a team of nine instructors who provide weapons training for Team Travis.

He said the team trains more than 3,000 Airmen each year, and so far in 2020, they have trained more than 1,400 Airmen.

That training consists of a classroom portion where Airmen learn about weapons safety, how to assemble and reassemble a weapon, as well as techniques they need to qualify, followed by live firing where Airmen engage targets up to 300 meters away.

“I teach a skill I hope nobody ever has to use,” said Staff Sgt. Frank Joseph, 60th SFS CATM instructor. “You never know when you will be in a situation where you’ll need to use your weapon, and if you’re using a firearm, you’re in a situation where your life or someone else’s life is on the line. I help Airmen build the confidence they need to survive that situation.”

Staff Sgt. Brandon McKoy, 821st Contingency Response Squadron C-17 Globemaster III loadmaster, has deployed to support contingency operations five times. He said he appreciates the training the 60th SFS CATM team provides.

“Their weapons courses help me eliminate complacency,” he said. “Taking the weapons classes before deployments enhances my weapons knowledge as the instructors go in depth on M-4 nomenclature and stress the importance of how to safely operate the rifle.”

Joseph became a CATM instructor in August 2013 and arrived at Travis AFB in April 2020. He said the highlight of the job is helping Airmen find the confidence they never knew they had.

“I used to be a CATM instructor at basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and I’ll always remember one Airman,” he said.

Basic military training recruits are required to complete an M-4 familiarization course as part of their training. During one class, while 57 other Airmen were engaging their targets, Joseph said he noticed one Airman who appeared to be nervous.

“Shortly after the command of ‘Fire,’ she screamed,” Joseph said. “She was really scared. I got her to calm down, coached her for a little bit and stressed the fundamentals to her. After that, she relaxed and was a phenomenal shot. She completed the course as a marksman.”

Airmen who qualify as experts with an M-9 pistol or M-4 rifle are eligible to be called “marksmen” and authorized to wear the small arms expert marksmanship ribbon.

“Taking shooters who have little to no confidence with a weapon and helping them build confidence is pretty awesome,” Joseph said.

While the coronavirus pandemic has impacted some operations at Travis AFB, essential missions like CATM have continued.

“Due to COVID-19, we have reduced our class size from as many as 28 shooters to no more than 10, so we can meet physical distancing requirements and comply with the installation commander’s guidance,” Richards said.

The CATM team has also implemented split shifts and doubled the number of classes to ensure all Airmen are trained prior to deployment, he added.

Along with ensuring Airmen are certified on a variety of weapons, the 60th SFS CATM team is also responsible for maintaining all Air Force-owned firearms at the base.

“We inspect and maintain nearly 5,000 weapons every year,” said Richards. “We monitor 14 weapons accounts across the base, and we inspect every weapon prior to deployment to ensure it is working properly.”

Richards said he’s proud of the CATM team.

“The effort our instructors put in every day is incredible,” he said. “Someone is always working on something to ensure each class is good to go. One instructor is prepping to teach the class, another is prepping ammunition, while another is checking the class roster and verifying attendance. They work so well together to make the mission happen and that’s something to be proud of.”