LINCOLN, Neb. – Thunder showers, lightning warnings and thick humidity did not stop members of the 155th Air Refueling Wing from proving they had the ability to survive and operate in a hostile environment during an ATSO exercise held June 10-12, at the Nebraska National Guard air base in Lincoln, Neb.
More than 300 airmen from the 155th ARW simulated a deployment to Southwest Asia to practice their war skills and ability to remain fully functional during confusing and disorienting scenarios. An additional 40 to 50 155th ARW senior personnel participated as an exercise evaluation team (EET) to observe and assist the “deployed” members.
Col. Keith Schell, 155th ARW commander and leader of the simulated “155th Air Expeditionary Wing” at the air base, said the exercise was designed to test the unit’s ability to conduct chemical defense and defend against ground attacks.
“One of the biggest things we are going to do is practice our ATSO skills, which is our ability to survive and operate,” said Schell. “Based on the simulated attacks, you’ll see us dressing out in multiple levels of (chemical gear).”
The scenarios simulated chemical attacks – requiring full mission oriented protective posture gear to include the M-50 gas mask – and ground attacks from snipers, hostile individuals and groups. The goal of the exercise was to practice reacting to unpredictable enemy actions.
Schell said he had four goals he wanted to accomplish during the exercise.
He said his number one concern was safety because the Nebraska Air Guard does not wear MOPP gear on a regular basis and with high humidity and heat, heat illness was a concern. The second goal was to learn.
“I know we have a lot of experts on EET. We have a lot of new people, too. So, I want them to come in with an open mind and think,” said Schell. “Bring all of that stuff you remember from past experiences, even though this is home station, because it is different than a deployed exercise. A lot of things we are doing here, we’ve done before. Now we have to think how we do it locally.”
Schell emphasized how important it was for those who have gone through these exercises before to take inexperienced airmen under their wings.
“I want people to go into it as mentors,” said Schell. “There are a lot of new people, so the people that have been through this, they need to be mentors to everybody else … If people aren’t doing things right, we need to point that out.”
Schell said the final goal was using the buddy system and communication.
“We have to rely on each other to make sure we do it correct,” said Schell. “Our buddies have to be there. The first person we should be talking to is our buddy. You check your buddy and he checks you as well.”
Schell offered advice to all ATSO players, new and experienced.
“Be open to advice,” said Schell. “This is a training opportunity. If you have individuals who have not been through this, they can monitor or watch part of it. Be mentors to them.”
During the exercise, heat and lightning warnings were minor setbacks, but the 155th ARW was prepared.
“We knew it was going to be hot. We used the work-rest cycles,” Schell said. “You have to be more keenly aware of your partner, because with heat, it can sneak up on you. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, those are a couple big points.”
In line with the heat index, airmen worked outside for 20 minutes and then came inside to cool off. Schell cautioned his airmen to be aware of how work-rest cycles are going to affect job performance and getting the mission accomplished.
He added, as individuals, airmen need to be aware of potential heat illnesses and to seek help right away if feeling ill.
“The reason we are doing this is if we ever have to go to war, we want to make sure that we can do it,” said Schell. “So, that’s why we are here and why the inspection members are here.”
Whether simulated or real-world situations, attitude plays a major factor in successful results.
Airman 1st Class Danielle Boger, a bioenvironmental engineer and simulated door guard and post attack reconnaissance team member during the exercise, said a good attitude along with teamwork were the most important parts of succeeding in this exercise.
“I think a positive attitude is really important. If people are negative, then they are not going to want to help their buddies or do their job very well,” said Boger. “But, if everyone has a positive attitude toward the exercise and real world stuff, I think the end product is going to be a lot better.”
Master Sgt. Benjamin Venteicher, the 155th Services Flight dining facility manager and the simulated mortuary noncommissioned officer in charge, touched on the importance of mentorship and the power of positivity.
Venteicher said exercises like the ATSO give the services flight a chance to perform tasks they don’t do on a regular basis. During normal drills, he said the routine is to serve a hot meal and make sure everyone is satisfied. However, during a deployment there are a wide variety of things the services flight is tasked to perform.
“I have been really impressed by the scenario and the fact that it’s pushed us. The scenario really does cater to the mortuary process for this particular exercise,” said Venteicher. “I was very impressed with our airmen. They really did a good job and really got their stuff together and got to get out and do their thing. It was good and I’m proud of them.”
“There is a lot to forget. There is always a checklist. There is always a process that you are not involved in regularly,” added Venteicher. “So, to be able to do this in an exercise environment, you are going to be able to get a lot more out of that and be able to practice that when you are under duress and stress.”
The scenarios during the exercise were designed to be stressful and hectic, which creates a legitimate training environment for airmen who are new to the Air Force or new to their specific job.
“The biggest lesson really is training those airmen underneath you (making) sure they know their stuff,” said Venteicher. “I feel like it’s something I knew, but seeing it in action has been really good. We have a lot of new folks who have been getting good training from this exercise, so it is good to see.”
Venteicher also stressed the importance of having a positive attitude.
“Attitude is number one, especially when you are wearing the chem. gear and you are sitting in the sun, baking,” said Venteicher. “Having that smile on your face and your thumbs up, you’re doing well and your folks are doing well. So, attitude has a lot to do with it, because it’s a mental game.”