Combat Controllers start path at Pope


5/29/2008 - POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Air Force Special Operations Command's Combat Controllers go through months of rigorous training. And when all is said and done they finally receive their coveted prize - They don their career-field specific scarlet beret. 

The Combat controllers originally wore blue berets but switched to the red beret in the mid 1970s. The switch was made in order to easily distinguish skill sets of Combat Controllers from Security Forces, who had adopted the blue beret for their career field. 

"The beret holds a lot of meaning for me," said Senior Master Sgt. Sean Gleffe, 342nd Training Squadron. "It represents excellence, honor, pride and commitment to duty. I have a knot tied for Mark Lee, John Chapman, Scott Sather, Martin Tracy and Christopher Matero in the black band that holds the beret together for each of these personal colleagues-brothers who perished in the line of duty." 

These battlefield Airmen take their decision to join this career field seriously but also realize the demands of the job are not without its rewards. 

"I've been a Combat Controller for 22 years and have seen a lot of things change," Sergeant Gleffe said. "A couple of things have remained the same. First, there is strong bond amongst Combat Controllers -- a common ground knowing what each has gone through in training and on the teams. You can trust that guy when you need to. 

"Second, you're constantly challenged as a professional and as an individual by your teammates and the other services. You are that link to air power for that ground force commander; a huge responsibility when you think about it. 

The tight bond these members have for each other and the pride they feel about the job comes as no surprise, especially when one considers the intense preparation they must go through before making the cut. 

"Training is always tough, always challenging," said one senior airman currently going through Combat Control School here. "The second week of this course you go through a week of strenuous activities where you get very little sleep - if you're lucky, two hours a night. You go on rucks with probably 50 to 60 pounds then you come back and go on a run, come back and go on another ruck. That goes on for about a week. It's stressful field training. "

In all, Combat Controllers spend 35 weeks training for this elite force. 

The training begins in Lackland with a two-week introductory course. Then it's off to Keesler for more than 15 weeks of air traffic control school. Once this training is completed, trainees go to U.S. Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Ga., where they are taught parachuting skills. From there, trainees go to survival school in Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. After all of this initial training is completed, they are then sent to Pope for 13 weeks of Combat Control School. Once this training is successfully completed, the trainees have finally earned their right to wear the red beret and receive their three skill level. 

However, these special operations members are not finished with training once they graduate Combat Control school. Instead they go on to Special Tactics Advanced Skills Training, U.S. Army Military Free Fall Parachutist School and U.S. Air Force Combat Driver School. 

A second lieutenant at Combat Control school here heard about this career field while he was attending the Air Force Academy when some people from the career field came to his school to talk about it. 

"When I initially went to the Academy I was going to do finance because I was interested in business economics, but I have always liked outdoors activities," the lieutenant said. "I wasn't sure what my job was going to be when I started the academy. I was pilot qualified but wasn't sure if I wanted to fly. I found out about Special Tactics and I knew it's exactly what I wanted to do. 

"I like being with the guys. I like the leadership aspect of it and that's one of the reasons I wanted to be on the ground. It's one of the few jobs in the Air Force I think where you can lead troops on the ground and actually be with the guys and have an impact on their lives in a positive way. In a lot of other jobs, you don't get leadership experience at that level until you are higher ranking. That attracted me to it and just the aspects of the job." 

Sergeant Gleffe offers this advice to Airmen who are thinking about joining the team. 

"I would say stop thinking and act," he said. "The longer you wait the more reasons you'll find not to give it a shot. Come by the school and take a look at our Heritage Center, our Silver Star Wall. If you truly have the desire and motivation to be a Combat Controller the Silver Star Wall will be a turning point for you. Yes the training is tough, but its progressive and you'll meet the required standards if you have the right mind set. 

"I guarantee, for those who successfully complete the training, they'll have absolutely no regrets. I would go back and do it all over again."

                                      Click here to watch a Combat Control Special Tactics Video