Tech Sgt. Scott Sturkol/U.S. Air Force
Members of the Air Force participate in combat rescue training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
Members of the Air Force participate in combat rescue training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Tech Sgt. Scott Sturkol/U.S. Air Force
Tech Sgt. Scott Sturkol/U.S. Air Force
Airmen learn how to cope with combat casualties under fire.
Airmen learn how to cope with combat casualties under fire. Tech Sgt. Scott Sturkol/U.S. Air Force
The Air Force has long billed itself as the most glamorous of the service branches.
Nowadays, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the shortage in infantry manpower, the Air Force is marching to a different beat.
At Fort Dix in New Jersey, members of the Air Force are training to fight on the ground. In one combat-training exercise, Airman Travis Neeley's sergeant is down, bleeding to death and straining to stay alive. The convoy they were riding in has been hit and, though he's only 20 years old with just two stripes on his sleeve, Airman Neely is suddenly the squad leader.
And his squad is under heavy enemy fire.
Travis Neely signed up for the Air Force fresh out of high school in his hometown of Greenback, Tenn. He's an air transporter by training, which means he moves cargo and passengers, and rigs air drops.
Or as he whimsically describes it, "I tie knots and string all day long and make parachutes."
But within 10 days, Neeley and 200 other airmen at the Air Force Expeditionary Center at Fort Dix will become expert marksmen on the M-4 rifle. In short, they'll become urban warriors.
The Expeditionary Center is now retraining about 5,000 airmen per year, preparing them to fight on the ground in Iraq.
"There's no doubt that we've been asked to come in and help out," says Maj. Gen. Scott Gray, commander of the Expeditionary Center.
Like most high-ranking airmen, Gray is a pilot by training, but he's now overseeing the largest Air Force retraining center in the United States. The Iraq war has strained the Army and the Marine Corps. The Air Force is increasingly helping fill the gaps.
"The Army has felt some pressure, there's no doubt about it," Gray says. "So the fact that we can aid the Army and Marines — I see that personally as a good thing."
Since 2003, more than 30,000 airmen and sailors have been retrained to do things they normally wouldn't be called on to do, like run vehicle convoys, take part in street patrols, and get used to the sound of an AK-47 — the weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq.
During the two-week course at the Expeditionary Center, the airmen will hear thousands of rounds of AK-47 blanks. They'll also receive hand-to-hand combat training and will be shot at by semunitions, or rubber bullets.
"These rounds travel at 300 feet per second, which is about a third of a speed of a real bullet," says Staff Sgt. Daniel Williamson. "They won't pierce you ... but they will tear your skin off."
Williamson trains his fellow airmen on how to clear a village. They haven't been trained in infantry tactics like their counterparts in the Army and Marines, so Williamson makes sure that each airman gets hit by a rubber bullet at some point.
"We believe pain is an excellent teacher, so if they make a bad tactical mistake — they're not behind cover or if they tuck their elbows out or flag their weapon or maybe they don't take cover — they're actually gonna get hit and they're gonna remember it because it actually stings a little bit," Williamson says.
The Iraq war has been, by and large, the Army's burden. About two-thirds of all casualties have been soldiers. And the administration's decision to increase the size of ground forces means that the Army and the Marines won't be able to fight it alone.
The Air Force has more than 350,000 active-duty airmen, and though many aren't yet trained in ground combat, it's manpower the Pentagon is after now.