News: 455th AEW airmen keep BAF safe by operating like infantry Soldiers
Story by Sgt. Ken Scar
PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – In Afghanistan, U.S. Air Force and Army uniforms are hard to distinguish between. Both have the same colors, the same “mulitcam” pattern, and the same tailoring. In fact, if the ranks and names weren’t a subdued crimson on the Air Force uniforms instead of the Army’s ink black it would be nearly impossible to tell them apart.
The friendly rivalry between the two branches incites service members on both sides to claim airmen and soldiers couldn’t be more different.
The Airmen of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, Task Force Reaper, on the other hand, take the contrasts between an Air Force unit and an Army infantry platoon and erase them completely.
The 455th secures all areas around Bagram Air Field, making it safe for aircraft to take off and land. It is a big job, as BAF is one of the largest U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, its dual runways host to scores of takeoffs and landings every day. Approaching aircraft have to fly over villages and farmlands that lie just outside the walls.
The insurgents around BAF have proven to be headstrong and tenacious. They set up rudimentary timed rocket attacks, plant mines, sneak anti-aircraft weapons between settlements, and repeatedly attempt to tunnel under the barriers, to name just a few of their tricks.
“Our mission is providing security for the base security zone,” said Tech Sgt. Dale Spencer, a squad leader for the 455th who hails from Tucson, Ariz. “We do everything from counter-tunnelling, counterinsurgency, small-arms fire and indirect fire responses to point of origin sites . . . anything that needs to be done within that ring.”
“Anything” also includes acting as a quick reaction force to rocket attacks, conducting shuras, clearing villages and setting up traffic checkpoints.
The unit conducts mounted and dismounted patrols daily into the deceptively kinetic terrain around BAF, exactly like an infantry platoon might.
“A lot of our training is based of some of the Army manuals,” explained Spencer. “We take those tools and apply them to providing security for the airfields. It makes it so we can go out with an Army unit, blend in, and seamlessly accomplish missions.”
“I love it,” said Covina, Calif., native Senior Airman Edgar Cerrillo, an advanced designated marksman for the unit. “I love the mission. Any time something happens near BAF, we’re the ones that go out. We make sure the aircraft are able to take off and land safely, and we try to find the guys that shoot at us.”
“What I love about our team is we do a little bit of everything,” said Staff Sgt. Cecy Hunter, a truck commander from New York, N.Y. “We’re very versatile.”
One day spent with the unit reinforces Hunter’s claim.
The day begins with a foot patrol through a small village, interacting with the locals and searching for possible anti-aircraft weapons that have been reported in the vicinity. Afterwards the unit conducts a meeting with local elders, followed by an evidence-gathering trip to a desolate point of origin site where a rocket was fired against the base the day before. They then mount their mine resistant ambush protected vehicles and convoy for 45 minutes to the mouth of the Panjshir river valley, where they set up a traffic check point, searching vehicles and questioning travelers for several hours. During the TCP their sniper team discovers a man-made cave on a steep mountainside next to an old Russian fighting position, so an element climbs the hillside to inspect the cave to make sure no weapons caches or other threats are hidden inside. They finally pull back onto BAF as dusk is settling over the valley.
Without spotting the reddish nametapes, anybody would think this was a high-speed Army infantry platoon.
“Everybody should know how hard these airmen work,” said Spencer. “They are on call 24/7, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Sometimes they go a month and a half on end with no days off, with limited amounts of sleep, limited amounts of eating and at a very high tempo.”
That high operation tempo seemed to have paid off in quieter skies around the base, with rocket attacks coming less frequently than in the past.
“For a spring offensive to be happening, and going three weeks plus without an IDF – that’s kind of unheard of,” said Master Sgt. Kenneth Broughman, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Task Force Reaper quick reaction team section. “There’s other pieces to the puzzle involved, but there’s not a doubt in my mind these guys play a big role in it.”
“These guys are so dedicated,” said Spencer. “It doesn’t matter what the mission is or how far they have to walk, if they miss a meal or a couple hours of sleep, or miss talking to their family – they’re out there watching our backs no matter what.”
”When he says they miss meals, that’s an understatement,” said Broughman. “They miss meals every day. Yet there is no complaining. They do everything that’s asked of them and then ask what else they can do.”
That’s enough to earn anyone’s respect, no matter what colors are on their uniform.