HURLBURT FIELD, FL – Although Air Force Special Operations Command was officially established in 1990, its history dates all the way back to World War II. From that time, Air Commandos have been heavily called upon for a wide assortment of missions – missions nobody else could do.
“Since 1975, at the end of the Vietnam conflict, Air Force Special Operations have been involved in some sort of contingency operation, except for three years,” said Herb Mason, AFSOC historian. “We’ve supported the U.N., been in many countries in Africa, Haiti, Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The lessons learned from Operation Rice Bowl and Urgent Fury in the early 1980s created a push for United States Special Operations Command, which activated April 16, 1987. Three years later, AFSOC was formed as its air component.
Then, just months later, Desert Storm started.
“Desert Storm was the first time AFSOC had the opportunity to shine (as an official Air Force command),” said Tim Brown, AFSOC deputy historian. “All of our assets were deployed and involved with the liberation of Kuwait. Our MH-53s escorted U.S. Army Apache helicopters into Iraq to take out Iraqi radar sites at the very start of the U.S. and coalition air campaign.”
Since then, AFSOC has been involved in more than 25 major operations.
“The number is constantly growing,” Brown said.
Some fights were short lived; however, some have been lengthy engagements. One example is Operation Enduring Freedom, which has been a continuous fight since October 2001.
Although every command brings something valuable to these operations, AFSOC is usually there first.
“We’re the door kickers,” Mason said. “We kick in the door, we get there first, we’re on the ground, and we do what’s asked of us.”
The job gets done at all costs, according to retired combat controller, Wayne Norrad, 24th Special Operations Wing.
“Our Special Tactics motto says it all… we’re first there, so that others may live,” Norrad said.
During Operation Anaconda, Tech. Sgt. John Chapman and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham lived up to the motto, and it cost them their lives.
“There are people still alive because of Jason’s work as a pararescueman on that mission and John’s tenacity to know that it was a dire situation and that someone had to take out the fighters and gun nest,” Norrad said.
As the combat controller, Chapman was there first, and as the pararescuman, Cunningham was providing medical treatment so others may live.
Since 9/11, AFSOC has memorialized 31 Airmen – 26 enlisted and five officers, Mason said.
Even with great leadership, extensive training, and a strong commitment, Air Commandos may face a great deal of risk during their careers.
“It’s the way the SOF mission is,” Norrad said. “There is no one else to go to. We have to make it happen.”
However, the added risk is not always a negative, according to Norrad.
“It keeps people excited, it keeps them on their toes,” he said. “It seems like you are closer to what’s going on in the world.”
From World War II until today, Air Commandos continue to be at the tip of the spear, and a step ahead in a changing world.