News: A dark, cold battlefield: My 'Happiest Place on Earth'
Story by Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho - It's cold and dark. The only sound heard are small crunches in the sage brush as I slowly shift from knee to knee, in attempt to stay warm and keep my legs from falling asleep.
It's well past midnight, the only thing keeping me warm is my breath, but I'm hesitant to breathe because it fogs my camera - the most important tool of a combat photojournalist, next to his rifle while downrange.
Gazing through my night vision lens, I watch a laser show unfold and, for a moment, my mind slips to Walt Disney World, Fla., where I've witnessed many impressive laser and light shows.
A figure comes into focus. It's U.S. Marine Capt. Chris Walker, 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO, from Camp Pendleton, Calif.) joint terminal attack controller, and he's aiming his infrared pointing and illuminating laser (or B.E. Meyer's 'IZLID') at a target as the roars of AV-8B Harrier turbofan engines erupt in my ears.
Snapping back to reality, it's instantly clear I'm not at the "Happiest Place on Earth."
No, I'm in Idaho, at the Juniper Butte bombing range near Mountain Home Air Force Base and have a job to do.
Up on one knee now, I continued to shoot photographic imagery and video as Walker, and seven other Marines from 1st ANGLICO Supporting Arms Liaison Team Delta (SALT-D) direct U.S. Navy, German Air Force and Royal Singaporean Air Force close-air support on insurgents planting an improvised-explosive device during exercise Mountain Roundup 2013.
Realistic training provides the U.S. and partnered warfighters the combat edge. The realism is in Afghanistan and on virtually any battlefield past or present, combat doesn't end when the sun sets, so it's essential participants at Mountain Roundup continue to train through the night.
Anyone who's spent time in Southern or Western Afghanistan would likely agree the deserts around Mountain Home look very familiar. That realistic environment makes the perfect location for ground forces to operate against fictitious enemies and perform JTAC training.
We also have the right mix of air space, modern ranges and proficient Airmen here. So, though this is my first Mountain Roundup, I'm not surprised the GAF, ANGLICO Marines and other combatants consider Mountain Home the perfect location for this type of combined-joint training.
"During this whole Mountain Roundup exercise, we've been partnering with the Germans, Singaporean Air Force and all our U.S. joint partners to train as a combined-joint unit aimed at the same objective," said Marine Capt. Erich Lloyd, 1st ANGLICO forward air controller. "Training with our allies is a very important role for ANGLICO because we are the Marine Corps' liaison for coalition partners."
Though night elements, frigid weather and coarse terrain didn't slow SALT-D down, however, politics early this fiscal year certainly throttled back the overall air power exhibited in the sky.
Many U.S. Air National Guard and Air Force participants couldn't participate in Mountain Roundup because of the government shutdown. The exercise kicked-off Sept. 30 and it wasn't until Oct. 15 when the host 366th Fighter Wing's F-15E Strike Eagles from the 391st Fighter Squadron finally got authorization to join the fight.
Once allowed, the 391st FS Bold Tigers took to the Wild Blue Yonder in masses, flying their screaming Strike Eagles to swiftly provide day and night air support to GAF, ANGLICO and U.S. Air Force JTACs from the 124th Air Support Operations Squadron, from Boise, Idaho.
Day or night, everyone involved hopes to provide more-integrated and proficient combined-joint forces.
"Virtually any contingency operation involving the U.S. Air Force will also involve joint partners and, in all probability, contain coalition partners," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Tapan Sen, 366th FW Weapons and Tactics Flight commander. "Inexperienced aircrews profit from simply being airborne with 80 to 100 other aircraft; from the extremely busy radios to the complex plans addressing airspace and target area conflicts with other aircraft."
Unhindered by the elements, Walker, Lloyd and SALT-D continued to direct bombs on target as they provided vital night-time combat experience to the pilots above. In SALT-D forward air controller Marine Sgt. Joel Flores' words, "it's not the flag on your arm or service patch on your chest that defines a warrior; it's the ethos of a man (or woman) who refuses to stand-by when his country needs him most."
I agree 100 percent with Flores and couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, as fellow 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs members Senior Airman Benjamin Sutton, Airman 1st Class Devin Nothstine and I drove the nearly three hours back to base early the next morning, I reflected on what Flores said.
Its nights like this when Florida weather is very becoming, but put me on a hilltop with some brothers-in-arms using IZLIDS and calling in air strikes, and I'm good to go. Perhaps, for me, Disney isn't the happiest place on earth after-all.
Aside from family time, I'm truly happiest with frozen toes, a head covered in sweat, camera in hand, and in the company of world-class soldiers, sailors and Marines, or working with the world's best airmen and our allies.