HERAT, Afghanistan – The battlefield is a dangerous place and soldiers fighting there know that each engagement could be their last.
When flames of combat swell into an inferno, soldiers often rely on close-air support to overwhelm the enemy, or sometimes, to merely survive.
Tactical Air Control Party airmen control CAS, advise ground commanders, and are often that vital link to their fellow servicemembers’ survival.
Within the TACP community, they sum their mission in three simple words: Advise, assist and control.
TAC-P is broken out into various career fields: Joint Terminal Attack Controller; Radio Operator, Maintainer and Driver, who are normally referred to as TACP; and Air Liaison Officer.
These airmen are either assigned to an Army combat unit or special operations forces. For many of these airmen, Army life and soldiers are what they know.
“We give these soldiers all we can,” said Senior Airman Jose Cruz-Richardson, a JTAC deployed to Bala Murghab, Badghis province, Afghanistan for much of 2010 and early 2011.
Cruz-Richardson recently returned to Fort Hood, Texas. While at BMG, he controlled the skies above 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment Soldiers during countless missions in that valley.
Air Force Staff Sgt. David Olson is currently deployed to BMG and is one of a three-man team whom replaced Cruz-Richardson’s team.
Olson is a TACP, a communication expert who assist JTACs in the performance of their duties while working to attain JTAC status for himself. When asked why, as a staff sergeant, he sought the retrain, his reply was simple:
“I wanted to be part of a brotherhood that is uncommon in any other job,” said Olson, who hails from Tulare, Calif.
Since day one of basic military training, every airman is grilled that the mission of the Air Force is primarily to put bombs on target, said Air Force Staff Sgt. David Chopik, a TACP from Naples, N.Y.
TACP is the tip of the spear that actually gets it done.
“We patrol with [soldiers] and get into the mix of combat with them,” said Chopik. “When the enemy gets too close, my job is to do what I can to get CAS or a show of force from the Air Force. These guys are my brothers.”
Soon after arriving to BMG, Olson and Chopik, and their JTAC (Senior Airman Joseph Gilbert) were tested during a White Platoon, Bulldog Troop (7-10 Cav. from Fort Carson, Colo.) foot patrol near Combat Outpost Delorean in southern BMG.
“We were going to recon the river valley and maybe talk to some locals,” recalled Olson. “That was the first time we got shot at. We continued forward and provided two 2,000-lbs GBU bombs on enemy fighting positions. The Army got what they needed out of that mission.”
A soldier agreed.
“We were under pretty heavy fire and got eyes on a large amount of insurgents grouping in one particular building,” said Army Sgt. Tyson Husk, White Platoon scout. “We had JTAC on the ground with us and they called in CAS. A B-1 Lancer overhead dropped a bomb on the compound and neutralized the enemy. Given their numbers and location, we would have likely suffered injuries or worse taking their location.”
Though that was the TACP Airmen’s first time seeing combat up close, it wasn’t, nor likely will be, their last.
The three-man TACP team’s mettle was tested again when Red Platoon (Bulldog Troop, 7-10 Cav.) performed a 72-hour mission near COP Metro in northern BMG. They patrolled further outside the BMG security bubble than coalition forces ever had previously.
Red Platoon was met with hostility throughout the mission, and on the final day, a brutal firefight ensued.
“We were pinned down and in really bad shape,” said 19-year-old Army Spc. William Newland, Red Platoon scout.
Newland and the other scouts were under heavy small-arms fire and were bunkered down in old Afghan ruins. They were engaged from a compound directly north of them and insurgents were using rivers on their east and west to move and flank their location.
Adding complexity to the engagement, insurgents moved women and children into the tree line on the western river, which allowed them to attack Red Platoon at will, and handicapped the coalition forces’ ability to return fire in that direction.
“[The insurgents] began hitting our defenses hard with [rocket propelled grenades] and four servicemembers from our team, plus a bomb-detection dog, were wounded by one of the RPGs,” said Newland. “I was really scared. When CAS arrived for a show of force, then launched [Hellfire] missiles and dropped bombs, it allowed our egress and saved our lives.”
Gilbert, from Lafayette, La., and the TACPs directed that CAS from Forward Operating Base Todd.
“The show of force was just to try to deter the enemy from engaging the troops on the ground,” said Gilbert. “But the firing continued and the guys starting taking RPG fire so we engaged the enemy’s position with the missile.”
At that moment, Army 1st Lt. Joseph Law, Red Platoon leader, ordered his men to quickly leave their fighting positions. The team fought their way into the eastern river and, under continuing fire, fought about two kilometers southward in the river bed where Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles waited to assist their escape.
After relocating and treating their wounded, Red Platoon mounted MRAPs and pushed back north to re-engage the enemy, said Gilbert, who at that time had a remote piloted vehicle and a B-1 Lancer in the skies waiting to assist.
“The B-1 provided one 500-lbs GBU bomb on an enemy fighting position, and neutralized it,” said Gilbert.
Meanwhile, Red Platoon scouts found an improvised explosive device making facility. They determined the building was bobby trapped and requested CAS to destroy it.
The TAC-P airmen responded and directed two more 500-lbs GBUs to be dropped on that location.
“The next two bombs took out an enemy cache that was booby trapped with explosives, tubes and rockets,” said Gilbert. “From the first to the last engagement, I knew the troops on the ground needed to get back to their COP, and every ordnance we provided helped accomplish their egress.”
Once back to COP Metro, Law said he was happy all his men survived, and thanked his TACP brethren for the large role they played in that fact.
“JTACs can change the course of any firefight or any enemy worldwide,” said Gilbert. “We can use aircraft in a defensive posture to try to deter the enemy from firing on our soldiers, or we can go kinetic and make sure those insurgents will never fire upon a soldier again. The lives of our Soldiers are a priority for everyone involved.”