HURLBURT FIELD, FL – Bravo team surveyed its objective through the tree line.
The two-story safe house had to be cleared swiftly and efficiently. From that point, the team would have three minutes to gather any intelligence material and get out of the immediate area.
The students’ eyes were set on the dark silhouette of the terrorist stronghold. The instructors’ eyes were set on their students.
Failure in this field exercise could mean course failure for any one of the 13 Deployed Air Ground Response Element candidates.
DAGRE is an advanced training program that equips security forces personnel with the skill set to provide enhanced security for special operations forces.
“When our operators deploy, they can concentrate on the specific mission at hand and feel confident about who has their back regarding security and force protection,” said Colonel Clifford “Skip” Day, deputy director of AFSOC installations and mission support.
Airmen with the DAGRE qualification are trained to meet security and force protection demands of SOF air assets and personnel when deployed at austere airfields lacking appropriate security or in locations where there is none at all, Day said.
This capstone course consists of an 8-week pipeline that includes academics, rigorous physical training, shooting instruction, combatives and tactical vehicle operations.
The culmination of the course is the four-day field training exercise in which students are split into operational teams to plan and execute varied security missions supporting special operations forces.
They receive little sleep during the exercise and often find themselves without enough time to plan the next mission.
“It is very rigorous, but, I will tell you, it is one of the best training programs I have ever encountered,” said DAGRE candidate Master Sgt. Paul Morales, a reservist with the 919th Security Forces Squadron, Duke Field, Fla.
Since its inception in 2008, the 371st Special Operations Combat Training Squadron’s security forces training program has produced 126 DAGREs for AFSOC.
The instructors responsible for producing DAGREs are Bob Henson and Derek Privette, who have approximately 50 years of security forces experience between them. Their programs extend beyond DAGRE, however.
DAGRE is only one piece of a dynamic program encompassing seven training courses equipping SOF security forces with specialized training that supports AFSOC’s unique mission sets.
The curriculum, available only to AFSOC security forces personnel, includes classes in leadership, fly-away security, communications, combatives, tactics, tactical vehicle operations and the DAGRE qualification course.
Prior to attending the DAGRE course, candidates must complete all six security forces courses as well as the Air Force Special Operations School’s Introduction to Special Operations Course and the Force Protection Level II course.
Candidates must also be physically prepared for DAGRE as they complete rigorous daily workouts. This class was certainly prepared, said Henson. For the first time in the program’s history, all candidates ran their six mile qualification run in under 50 minutes. The run is a required event prior to moving to the field training exercise.
Morales, the oldest candidate in the group at 46, said he has seen a drastic improvement in his fitness in just eight weeks.
“Before I came here, I thought I was in shape, but I wasn’t,” Morales said. “Now, going through this as the oldest person here, Tylenol and Motrin are my best friends, but it is well worth it. My guys will look at me and say ‘hey, if he can do it, I can.'”
While the physical training is taxing, it does not hold a candle to the demands of mission planning. Morales said learning to adequately plan for a mission was one of his biggest takeaways.
“When you think about the mission, you think about people going out and doing it, but there is a lot more to it,” he said. “The planning is extremely time-consuming.”
Before Bravo Team rucked to its objective, its members prepared for a moonless night, types of terrain they would encounter and where they would be positioned once they reached the compound.
They knew their enemy. The fictional terrorists they would encounter were part of a 750-strong group known as the United Terrorist Movement.
Their enemy primarily engaged in roadside bombings and drive-by shootings. Members would be armed with M-4 rifles and would likely be dressed in civilian or military clothing bearing no distinct rank.
The DAGRE candidates hovered over a terrain model of the compound they would visit that night, mapping out their approach and rally points.
Henson listened attentively as his students gave their mission brief and offered sage advice on how to improve it.
“We’re always playing an away game, so we’re in their backyard,” he said. “Use the wood line. Don’t get up next to the building. Fifty meters from the door is too far for your security element to be able to see it at night.”
Bravo Team made modifications to their plan and conducted a run-through before rolling out in their Humvees.
“We try and make this a really good learning environment in which they get a lot of feedback,” he said. “This is the first time these guys have done anything like this. They’ll critique the heck out of themselves. We just get the ball rolling.”
After traveling as close as they could to the safe house by Humvee, Bravo Team donned 60 pound rucks and set out on foot for their dismounted mission, wading through marsh and thick brambles as darkness closed in.
Hours passed before the safe house appeared green through their night vision goggles.
Opposing forces patrolled the two-story building and accompanying grounds, using high-beam lights to monitor the tree line surrounding them.
Excruciatingly detailed mission planning and rucking would come down to what happened in the next few minutes.
There was a quick rustle from the tree line and then Bravo Team was on its objective, engaged in a firefight with two enemy combatants.
The DAGRE candidates eliminated the threat from the opposing force, gathered available intelligence material and rallied for departure as a ground burst simulator went off behind them.
Senior Airman Bryan Hutchins, the first candidate to go through DAGRE twice due to a previous injury, called the field exercise the roughest portion of the course.
“It was very difficult, however, I pressed through,” Hutchins said. “It’s all about mental prowess really; about keeping the goal in mind and believing you can do it.”
Motivations for making it through the course varied widely – from focusing on friends and family to finally swapping out MREs for a hot pizza to adding more excitement to the daily work routine.
What was unanimous was the pride of the new graduates as they received their DAGRE number and joined the ranks of the select SOF security forces brotherhood.
Henson advised the graduating class:
“Don’t become complacent, don’t rest on your laurels, and work hard to promote the importance of the DAGRE program through your actions and your professionalism,” he said. “I personally know you all are prepared to provide world-class security for AFSOC assets and personnel around the world.”
Hutchins’s smile was triumphant as he exited the auditorium. He made it the second time around.
“It’s honestly about
time. I can finally be a part of this brotherhood,” he said. “DAGRE is a great leadership course. Without it, you’d have no idea how to plan a mission by yourself. Now, as a young Airman, I know what it takes.”