Air Force Prepares Members for Ground Combat The Air Force has long billed itself as the most glamorous of the service branches. But with the Pentagon short on infantry manpower, the branch is increasingly being called on to fill the gaps. At the Expeditionary Center in Fort Dix, New Jersey, airmen are retrained in combat techniques to prepare them for fighting on the ground in Iraq.
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Air Force Prepares Members for Ground Combat

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Air Force Prepares Members for Ground Combat

Air Force Prepares Members for Ground Combat

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The Air Force has long billed itself as the most glamorous of the service branches. This a 1950s recruiting ad.

(Soundbite of recruiting ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, by these wings you will be known. You'll be recognized throughout the world as one of America's knights of the sky, an Air Force pilot.

MONTAGNE: With the Iraq and Afghan wars and the shortage in infantry manpower, the Air Force is increasingly marching to a different beat.

(Soundbite of man shouting)

(Soundbite of gun shot)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Guy Raz went to Fort Dix, New Jersey to see how the Air Force is training its own to fight on the ground.

Unidentified Man #2: Man down.

Unidentified Man #3: Man down.

Unidentified Man #4: Get him down. Get him down.

Unidentified Man #3: Right up to the front. Right up to the front. We need supplies.

RAZ: Airman Travis Neely's sergeant is down. He's bleeding to death. He is straining to stay alive. The convoy they were riding in has been hit. And though Airman Neely is only 20 years old with just two stripes on his sleeve, he now finds himself the squad leader, and the squad is under heavy enemy fire.

Travis Neely signed up for the Air Force fresh out of high school in his hometown of Greenback, Tennessee. He's an air transporter by training. It means he moves cargo and passengers, and he rigs air drops. Or as he whimsically describes it...

Airman TRAVIS NEELY (U.S. Air Force): I tie knots and string all day long and make parachutes.

RAZ: But within 10 days, Neely and 200 other airmen here 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 a year, getting them ready to fight on the ground in Iraq.

Major General SCOTT GRAY (Commander, Expeditionary Center): There's no doubt that we've been asked to come in and help out.

RAZ: This is Major General Scott Gray. He is the commander of the expeditionary center. Now, like most high-ranking airmen, General Gray's 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. It's strained the Marines. And the Air Force is increasingly helping fill the gap.

Maj. Gen. GRAY: The Army has felt some pressure, there's no doubt about it. So the fact that we can aid out the Army and Marines - I see that personally as a good thing.

RAZ: Since 2003, more than 30,000 airmen and sailors have been retrained to do things they wouldn't normally do, like run vehicle convoys or take part in street patrols and get used to the sound of an AK-47 - the weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

RAZ: During the two-week course here, the airmen will hear thousands of rounds of AK-47 blanks. They'll also receive hand-to-hand combat training.

Unidentified Man#5: Ready. Attack.

RAZ: And they'll get shot at by what are called semunitions, or rubber bullets.

Staff Sergeant DANIEL WILLIAMSON (Air Force): These rounds travel at 300 feet per second, which is about a third of a speed of a bullet. All right. When they hit you, they're not going to pretty much pierce you, but they are going to tear your skin off.

RAZ: Staff Sergeant Daniel 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. And that is to make a point.

Staff Sgt. WILLIAMSON: It hurts just enough where we believe pain is an excellent teacher. So a little bit of pain, if they make a bad tactical mistake - they're not behind cover or if they tuck their elbows out or if they flag their weapon or maybe they don't take cover in a window - they're actually going to get hit and they're going to remember it because it actually stings a little bit, so it (unintelligible) a little bit.

RAZ: 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 increasingly 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 now after.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, the Navy in future wars.

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