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Tactical Air Controllers Command Over Afghan Sky

By Sgt. Frank Magni, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ORGUN-E, Afghanistan, Nov. 22, 2004 – They are a unique breed of servicemembers on the frontline -- Air Force by service, but Army by trade. Air Force joint tactical-air controllers can be found throughout Afghanistan -- planning, communicating and facilitating the execution of close- air support for ground forces.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
An AH-1 Cobra helicopter supports soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, while they convoy through Paktika province, Afghanistan. Air Force joint tactical-air controllers deployed from the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron, Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, coordinate such close-air support for Army units. Photo by Sgt. Frank Magni, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

For the "Wolfhounds" of 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, operating in Paktika province, JTAC support comes from the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron, Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii. Located everywhere from tactical headquarters to operations with company-sized elements, JTAC personnel act as the liaison for all air support that comes from every service and all coalition partners.

"Because what we do can be applied to any air-support element, we have no problems working with anybody," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Mark Hiler, a JTAC with the 25th ASOS.

From helicopters to bombers, JTAC personnel and their leaders have a variety of weapons capabilities at their disposal to perform many different tasks. Choosing the right weapon for the task is just one part of their job. To be successful at calling in air support, they must master two vital skills: communication and planning, said Hiler.

In the stages leading up to operations, JTACs are very important to planning because they pay constant attention to how close-air support will be used and even advise leaders on the best ways to use air assets, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Pena, another JTAC with the 25th ASOS. Planning is also important so that close-air support can always operate safely on the battlefield with other indirect-fire assets, such as artillery and mortars.

While communication goes hand in hand with the planning process, it is also one of the most important things the JTACs do. "If we can't talk, we can't do anything," said Hiler. "Communications is such an important aspect of our job."

To assist in their communication needs, the JTACs employ not only a complete array of equipment, but also the knowledge to operate, maintain and fix the equipment. "We have to know how to do everything with our (communication equipment)," said Pena. "We are away from our support elements so often, it is many times up to us to make sure we can continue on with the mission."

For the JTACs, being isolated away from not only support, but also other airmen, is something they say is just a part of the job -- an aspect they not only enjoy, but one that also sets them apart from everyone else in their service. Because every JTAC is a volunteer, Pena said the job creates its own identity and desire for a job well done.

JTAC is also one of the few jobs in the Air Force that is so far forward on the battlefield, he said. "We like to be out on the frontline with the Army," said Pena. "It is something that you want to do, and is very rewarding. It is almost like a brotherhood."

(Army Sgt. Frank Magni is assigned to the 17th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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