AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — The reminders are constant. They're painted on
the walls of the exclusive gym, screamed by instructors during intense
physical training. Never quit.
To exit the Combat Controller
training building here, trainees must tap a sign with that message.
Massive letters inscribed on the walls inside the building — NFQ —
represent the "no quitters" mantra, with an expletive added for
Still, about 60 percent of the airmen who come to the
Combat Control Operator Course will quit, putting additional pressure
on a specialty known for its difficulty in recruiting and retaining
announce to their classmates that they are finished, trainees must ring
a silver bell in the gym. The message: They can't handle the training.
This isn't for them.
can only quit once," said Master Sgt. Brad Reilly, the non-commissioned
officer in charge of Combat Controller training at Keesler.
When they walk out for the last time, they don't tap the writing above the door.
four-month stay at Keesler is one step in a long journey to becoming an
Air Force Combat Controller. Controllers are attached to the military's
elite special operations groups, such as Army Special Forces or Navy
SEALs, and are trained to direct aircraft and set up operating
But as cool as the job might sound, it requires special skills that are
hard to find — and even harder to retain. Combat Control is one
of the Air Force's most critically understrength career fields, with a
retention rate of about 13 percent in 2011.
still and always will remain an undermanned career field," Reilly said.
"We've just got to find the raw material first ... find somebody who
wants to do this. Not many guys in the Air Force want to do this."
But there are incentives: Airmen
in these jobs who have 17 months to 14 years of service are eligible
for the top re-enlistment bonuses — up to $90,000 this year. And they
typically have higher promotion rates than other specialties.
Air Force's approximately 500 Combat Controllers also are considered to
be in a stressed career field because of their high deployment rates
and operational tempo, and there's no sign of that easing up.
Air Force Combat Controllers set up communications to contact the
special tactics operation center while conducting a drop zone survey in
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 24,2010, during Operation Unified
Response. Combat Control is one of the Air Force's most critically
undermanned career fields.
help identify airmen with the desire and ability to withstand intense
training, a Rand study commissioned by the Air Force to help improve
retention among nine critical skills recommended using the
emotional-quotient inventory, or EQ-i test, as part of the screening.
The service is working on incorporating the test, according to the
Selection for Combat Controllers begins with a 10-day course after basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
"It's a kick in the balls,"
Reilly said, meant to weed out those who aren't ready. This phase has a
35 percent to 50 percent attrition rate.
The instructors at Keesler get
their chance with the trainees next for about four months of intense
physical training and classroom work. From there, they move to training
back at Lackland and on to bases such as Fairchild Air Force Base,
Wash.; Hurlburt Field, Fla.; and Pope Field, N.C., for courses that
include survival, evasion, resistance and escape training; jump
training — including high-altitude, low-opening — and
combat dive training.
The trainees work for 35 weeks
before they earn the scarlet beret that comes with being a Combat
Controller. Then they move on for more advanced training.
||Training days at Keesler are
long, and start hard. Combat trainees are up before 5 a.m. every day
for their gym and beach workouts.
On a morning in late June, a
group of 11 trainees met in the combat-exclusive gym on base to prepare
for a grueling two hours on the sandy beaches of Biloxi, Miss.
6 a.m., the Blue Bird bus pulled up to Highway 90, a stretch of beach
on the coast situated between two massive luxury hotels. Two by two,
the 11 ran to the beach, with Lt. Christopher Walsh in front. On his
right shoulder he carried a painted rock, about the size of a
basketball, with the names of fallen Combat Controllers. Each training
group gets one, and they hold onto it and take care of it during their
time at Keesler.
Over the next two hours, they were pushed to
their limit, with multiple 600-meter sprints, and then even more
Lt. Christopher Walsh carries a rock painted with the names of fallen
Combat Controllers during a morning FT run in Biloxi, Miss. Each team
of trainees traditionally carries a similar rock through their time at
the Combat Control Operator course at Keesler Air Force Base.
With barely a rest, they moved to soft sand for
more sprints, firemen's carries, buddy drags and burpees — a
combination pushup and jumping jack done countless times throughout the
day. Two trainees who had fallen behind the others were even ordered to
do them in the ocean.
For about half of the exercises, the
trainees competed with one another. For the other half, they worked
together and carried each other to make it through.
"They run together; it's good that they push each other," Reilly said.
When they finished, they cleaned the gym until it was pristine.
From there, they began a full day of air traffic control classes, alongside other airmen training to be air traffic controllers.
The five-phase class work at Keesler uses massive, expensive radar and
tower simulators to familiarize the airmen with tower operations. They
direct simulated airframes, replicating the situa¬tions Air Force
Combat Controllers face in the towers, and skills they will need during
operations in the field.
Class work goes into the night, and trainees sleep barely six hours before getting up and doing it again.
the end of the four months at Keesler, they are all Federal Aviation
Administration-certified air traffic controllers. But for the combat
trainees, this is just the beginning.
The end result
is there to push everyone through the training and weed out those who
can't cut it. After serving as a Marine for 12 years in maintenance,
Reilly said he wanted to try something new and went for Combat Control.
The Marine job "just wasn't
enough to satisfy me," he said while watching the trainees do sprints.
"I wanted a real mission change."
If he knew how hard the training
would be, he said, he might not have done it. But now — after six
deployments, earning the Silver Star in Afghanistan — he doesn't
want to do anything else. He became the NCO in charge of the training
Most trainees arrive straight out of basic training, young and determined to make the cut.
One is Philadelphia-native Airman
1st Class Dan Dalton. During the morning beach FT, he was up front,
leading the group through burpees on the sand and setting the pace in
Going into training, he had an
idea of what he was getting into. But when it gets tough, the guys
around him are there to help push through, he said.
"I know I want to do the job," he
said. "I know it's going to be hard. But, it's doable. People who came
before me succeeded. When there's rough times, you just look to the guy
next to you and know that he's still going, so I'm still going to go."
have taken different paths to becoming a Combat
Controller, or for officers, becoming a special tactics officer.
First Lt. Christopher Walsh was a
KG-135 maintenance officer at RAF Mildhenall, England, for 2 1/2 years
when he decided to earn the right to wear a scarlet beret. The idea of
special operations appealed to him, and he is now helping lead the
group through training as the only officer in his training group.
"It's just the end result,
knowing that one day you are going to be around heroes ... guys
downrange doing amazing things," he said. "You get to work with those
indi¬viduals. I think that is the most rewarding thing, especially
from a leadership perspective."