HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Nearly 30 Air Force Academy cadets took part in a Monster Mash here June 13 as part of an orientation course to experience life as a special tactics officer.
The Monster Mash was a six-mile, on-base race that tested the cadets skills in running, ruck marching, litter carrying, swimming, self aid and buddy care and memory recall. Variations of the Monster Mash are held often in special tactics units, but this one was part of the Academy’s Special Tactics Officer Orientation Program held here June 2-19.
"The Air Force Academy Special Tactics Officer Orientation Program is a three-week program designed to give interested cadets the opportunity to meet special tactics members and see the training we conduct to prepare for current and future operations," said Capt. Eli Mitchell, Special Tactics Training School director of operations.
Now in its third year, the orientation program was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Ron Stenger, a special tactics Officer who was an air commanding officer of a cadet squadron at USAFA.
Colonel Stenger wanted cadets to have a basic understanding of the special tactics mission, organization and people, said Captain Mitchell.
"As a graduate of the Air Force Academy, I wish I could have had the opportunity that these cadets have now," said Captain Mitchell. "I had very little knowledge of special tactics when I was trying to become part of the community."
During the course, cadets observed training by current STTS students during a gunship call for fire, heavy weapons firing, parachute operations, dive operations and fast roping. Additionally, they participated in special tactics-oriented physical training, obstacle courses, marching with heavy ruck sacks and swimming long distances in the waters south of the base.
According to cadets, the orientation program, though intense, continues to gain momentum at the Academy, capturing the attention of would-be STOs and even those who are planning alternate career paths.
"This is a great experience, regardless of where you end up in your military career," said Cadet 1st Class Daniel Balch. "This is the second year I’ve participated, and I feel like it is preparing me for my future cross-commissioning into the Army. I know I’ll be working with special tactics, and it’s great experience to see how servicemembers work together."
The cadets agree that getting through the program, especially the Monster Mash, takes working together. They are assigned to teams of five or six cadets.
"Any inability to complete a task or not having the answer to general Air Force knowledge and history questions results in a penalty of eight-count, body-building push-ups," said Eddie Howard, STTS formal training mentor.
"As individuals, there are people here who can smoke this thing," said Cadet 2nd Class Michael Erickson. "But we are taught from day one at the Academy that teamwork is the most effective way to get the job done, and this course is a lesson in the importance of working as a team."
Teamwork also provides the cadets the ability to watch out for each other, which promotes the ever-important aspect of safety to the program.
"Bumps and bruises are par for the course, but maintaining a safe environment for the cadets is of the utmost importance," said Captain Mitchell. "Every aspect of the course is closely monitored to ensure we can maintain the realism of being in the field."
The cadets, along with two Academy military trainers and two Naval Academy cadets, participated in the three-week long orientation program. Many plan to return.
"The only thing the cadets get when they complete this program is a sense of pride," said Captain Mitchell. "We have an expectation of future STOs and combat rescue officers, and this program is realistic and demanding. This exposure to our mission and capabilities increases knowledge of what special tactics is Air Force wide, and it’s great for recruiting."
Word of mouth at the Academy has recruited a growing number of cadets for the program since 2006, and shows no signs of slowing down, said Master Sgt. Todd Farlee, Academy military trainer and program participant.
"Very few of the cadets had any idea what this was going to be like, but it didn’t stop scores of cadets from signing up," said Sergeant Farlee. "I think they’ve all gained an appreciation and a full perspective of what special tactics is all about."