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Air Force Provides Convoy Security for Army, Marines in Iraq

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

CAMP BULLIS, Texas, Feb. 8, 2005 – When Master Sgt. William Chapman joined the Air Force transportation field 20 years ago, he never dreamed he'd use his skills far beyond the flight line or base cantonment area.

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Airmen train in the combat-type skills they will need during convoy operations in Iraq. Photo by Robbin Cressell
  

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Recently returned from Iraq, Chapman is teaching his fellow airmen critical skills they'll need to conduct convoy security missions there.

It's a nontraditional mission the Air Force hasn't carried out since Vietnam but took on again early in 2004 to help ease the burden on the Army and Marine Corps, explained Air Force Master Sgt. Phil Coolberth, who helped establish the Air Force's new Basic Combat Convoy Course here, outside San Antonio.

Today, the Air Force is a full partner with the Army and Marine Corps as it runs convoys throughout Iraq in support of military operations there, with more than 1,000 transporters, special police and medical and personnel specialists trained to help provide security, explained Air Force 1st Lt. Leo Martin, course commander.

To ensure airmen are prepared, the Basic Combat Convoy Course, or BC3 for short, packs into just four weeks the combat skills airmen will need to stay alive as they carry out the mission: weapons, tactics, maneuver and small-unit leadership skills, among them.

That's no small task, considering the limited ground combat training most airmen receive. Airmen typically receive just one week of field experience during basic training and fire their weapons only once every two years. "Unless your specialty is security forces or special operations, our knowledge of field skills is pretty limited," Martin said.

While acknowledging that the training represents a real "cultural switch," Master Sgt. Phil Coolberth said airmen's lack of field combat skills when they enter the training isn't all bad. They come to the course without ingrained bad habits and are open to the course material as they undergo training specifically geared to the convoy mission, he noted.

"We're building the perfect set of skills for this exact mission," Coolberth said.

He was among the first airmen who deployed to Southwest Asia to conduct convoy security. He received a patchwork of training stateside and at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, before moving into Iraq.

Coolberth said he and his colleagues, backed up by senior Air Force leaders, quickly recognized the need for a comprehensive, standardized training program geared specifically for the mission in Iraq.

Coolberth sketched out the basic training plan on a restaurant napkin, then worked with members of the 342nd Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to create a full-blown course to prepare airmen for the threats they are likely to encounter.

Students qualify on M-4 assault rifles and M-249 machine guns and learn to shoot long distances at night, learn the rules of engagement and laws of armed conflict, and train in land navigation and tactical communications. They practice convoy maneuvers, learning how to react if their vehicle comes under fire, hits a roadside bomb or breaks down, and how to protect themselves if they're forced to abandon their vehicle. One-quarter of the students receive basic combat lifesaving training so they can come to the aid of their fellow troops if needed.

Then the airmen go to the field for a four-day tactical exercise that puts their new knowledge to the test under realistic conditions.

"We train them on the basic skills sets so when they get into a situation, they can make split-second decisions and make them right," Coolberth said. "We instill confidence in them and make sure they're mission ready."

"Our emphasis is on small-unit leadership," said Staff Sgt. Walter Voltz, the student first sergeant who earned a Bronze Star while conducting a convoy mission in Iraq. "This is an exercise in teaching these young kids how to make sound decisions using a model that's tried and true."

After completing the training at Camp Bullis, the BC3 students head to Fort Hood, Texas, to validate their skills, then deploy to Southwest Asia "within days," Coolberth said. This ensures "very motivated students," he said. "We don't have any trouble keeping them awake in the classroom."

Airman 1st Class Todd Martin, who's more accustomed to driving tractor trailers and forklifts around Kadena Air Base, Japan, than in providing convoy security in a combat zone, said the training he and his fellow airmen are receiving here "is preparing us for everything that could come our way."

Now in his final week of training here, Martin said the BC3 course is giving him "a lot more confidence" for the mission he will soon carry out in Iraq. "We're learning a lot here," he said. "They're teaching us as much as they can, and most of the instructors have been there. That's as good as it can get."

The cadre at the BC3 course, many of whom have conducted convoy security missions in Iraq, use their experiences to prepare the airmen following in their footsteps. But they're quick to acknowledge that with the ever-changing situation on the ground, they can't rely on past experience alone.

To keep the training up-to-date, Coolberth said, the staff constantly taps into the latest intelligence from Iraq and incorporates that information into their program. "Our exercises mirror scenarios on the ground," he said. "We're constantly changing the curriculum to match the intelligence. Intelligence drives the operations, and operations drive the training."

Of all the information presented to the airmen before they deploy to Iraq, the cadre agreed that the most important lessons are in focusing on the mission, paying attention to detail, and being flexible to the situation at hand.

If there's any measure of the success of the Air Force's BC3 training program, it's how students are received in the field. Voltz admits he ran into "a little skepticism at first from Army units on the ground." But after seeing the airmen perform, he said, the soldiers "were asking for them by name."

Voltz calls the BC3 program a major step forward in the Air Force's ability to work jointly with its sister services and to prepare its people as they take on new, nontraditional missions.

"This is a proven course that saves people's lives," Voltz said. "We try to put these guys in the right frame of mind so they can focus on the mission and survive the rigors of combat."

The BC3 course will soon be conducted at a new training facility under construction at Camp Bullis. It will be named Camp Anderson-Peters, in memory of two airmen killed in Bayji, Iraq, while conducting convoy security missions: Airman Carl Anderson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Peters.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDuring the Basic Combat Convoy Course at Camp Bullis, Texas, airmen train in the combat-type skills they will need during convoy operations in Iraq. Photo by Robbin Cresswell  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAirmen training for convoy security missions in Iraq get realistic training at Camp Bullis, Texas, near San Antonio. Photo by Robbin Cresswell  
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