CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. - The 1st Combat Camera Squadron located at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., started the new year with its first Ability to Survive and Operate Exercise in more than six years, Jan. 7 through 18.
The exercise familiarized and tested Airmen on the ability to operate outside the wire as combat documentation specialists.
The Airmen of the 1st CTCS are tasked with the mission of acquiring still and motion imagery in support of classified and unclassified air, sea, and ground military operations around the world.
“As far back as World War II, images of war have been coming from units specifically tasked with the mission of documenting military operations,” said Maj. Michael Johnson, 1st CTCS commander. “The 1st Combat Camera Squadron is unique, because our mission is to strictly document and while public affairs shops document, they also provide command driven stories. It does not matter if the situation is good, bad or ugly … if we are tasked with documenting it - we document all of it.”
The exercise consisted of one week in-house training where airmen attended classroom sessions as well as hands-on training.
Once the first week of training was complete, more than 60 airmen from the 1st CTCS were flown to an undisclosed location where they exited a C-17 Globemaster III and rucked to a nearby camp. The camp would be their simulated deployed location for the duration of the exercise.
The airmen were separated into three groups consisting of 13 to 14 airmen. Each group would eat, sleep and train together as one cohesive unit throughout the week.
“This training exercise gave the airmen the opportunity to strengthen their camaraderie by stepping out of their comfort zone and having to trust one another to complete the training objectives," said Master Sgt. Joanna Hensley, 1st CTCS unit training manager.
Each unit would spend an entire day learning each specific portion of the ATSO to include: Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape as well as Tactical and Convoy operations. The Airmen would wake up at 6 a.m. and train until 8 p.m. and at times, even later.
“The training was designed to test the airmen not just in the physical sense, but in the metal sense as well,” said Johnson.
The SERE portion of the training consisted of hand to hand combat skills, disarming an enemy, navigation and surviving in the wild.
“We were able to have two SERE members from the base come out with us and train our Airmen throughout the week,” said Capt. Mark Lazane, 1st CTCS broadcast flight commander.
The unit was also fortunate enough to have two medical specialists from the 628th Medical Group train the Airmen on self-aid buddy care and treat real world medical concerns during the training.
“We encountered sprained ankles, sprained knees, injuries to limbs as well as allergic reactions,” said Staff Sgt. John Backer, 628th Medical Group independent medical technician.
The medics spent the week in the field with the airmen.
"We could not have successfully completed this training without the help of the medics from the 628th Medical Group," said Hensley.
Aside from the SERE and self-aid buddy care, the Airmen trained for an entire day on tactical procedures with members of the 1st CTCS that have several hours of training and field experience.
“Our mission was to expose the younger airmen and noncommissioned officers to tactical procedures through classroom presentations as well as in the field training,” said Tech. Sgt. DeNoris Mickle, 1st CTCS photo flight element lead.
The Tactical portion included: weapons familiarization, team tactical movement and close quarters battle.
“The airmen at 1st CTCS are very familiar with the M-4 and M-9, because they perform weapons familiarization quarterly,” said Mickle. “Actually operating their weapons in the field was something we were really able to show them during the team tactical movement portion.”
The airmen went on numerous patrols where they were met by small arms fire from role players.
“It was very eye opening to me having never performed my actual duty as a combat cameraman in the field,” said Airman 1st Class Eric Mann, 1st CTCS broadcaster. “I quickly learned the difficulty of documenting and knowing when to put the camera down and pick up my weapon.”
A shoot house was also set-up where the airmen were trained on close quarter battle and the proper procedures for clearing buildings.
“Overall the training was very valuable and I feel much more prepared to deploy and perform my duty as a combat cameraman,” said Mann.
Another portion of the ATSO was convoy training. Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, 1st CTCS noncommissioned officer in charge of flying operations, led the convoy portion with classroom presentations and an entire day of convoy operations.
“We taught the Airmen how to operate a Humvee, the different positions within a Humvee and reacting to small arms fire as well as identifying and responding to improvised explosive devices planted by enemy forces,” said Cadiz.
The convoy training required individuals who may not be very loud on a day-to-day basis to be more vocal and communicative during a convoy operation.
“It was interesting to see the airmen go from crawling to walking and finally to the running stage of the exercise.” said Cadiz. “When they deploy, these airmen may not find themselves in the exact same situations as we trained on, but the basics we taught them will still apply.”
On the final day of training, the airmen were roused from their sleep by a tactical-insertion team which set off a flash bang in the middle of their camp. From that point on, the airmen were put through an hour and a half course which assessed them on their week-long training.
“The airmen responded very well to the end scenario and I saw a lot of leadership and morale boosts from the training,” said Lazane.
The week-long training ended at noon Jan. 18, 2013, after a full week of field training.
“When I took command of the 1st Combat Camera Squadron in July 2012, I was told I was very lucky and was about to lead a group of exceptional airmen,” said Johnson. “The way the Airmen prepared, reacted to and performed during this ATSO really showed me how great these airmen are.”
The squadron is already in the planning stages for next year’s ATSO.