Marine Corps Sgt. Levi J. Slife is a talker.
Slife loves to talk while he fixes his truck and motorcycle back home in Littleton, Colorado. His Marine buddies say he ran his mouth during a firefight in Afghanistan while enemy rounds were chipping away at brick walls inches above his head. His Marine comrades claim he talks like Usain Bolt runs. He talks because it’s his job -- he is a joint terminal attack controller, an instructor and a noncommissioned officer.
Slife “is very talkative, which helps when he teaches because he’s a charismatic instructor who can hold a Marine’s attention,” said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Robert H. Cheathem, a native of Jacksonville, North Carolina, and a JTAC with Company L, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “He can identify well with the Marines he’s teaching, and he’s very knowledgeable on the job, so he can speak eloquently when Marines ask questions.”
Slife’s ability to speak clearly contributes immensely to his line of work when calling in close-air support or surface-to-surface bombardments on enemy positions. He must relay information as quickly as possible to support his Marines, and has to remember the procedures to do so.
There’s a lot to remember and lives depend on it.
Slife’s path to becoming a joint terminal attack controller began when he enlisted as a fire support man during the spring of 2007. A fire support man is trained to scout forward with an infantry unit and call in artillery or long distance indirect fire. He then became a joint fire observer and learned how to use a laser designator and how to “talk-on” close-air support during his second tour in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010.
This combined knowledge allows the fire support man to direct attack aircraft underneath the supervision of a joint terminal attack controller, who is the chief designator of close-air support ordnance and has the final say with the pilot or gunner before they commit to an attack. The responsibility of a JTAC and the amount of procedures he has to follow is critical in order for bombs and bullets to hit the right spot.
After his second tour in Afghanistan, Slife went through the fire support chief course in the summer of 2011 and became a JTAC.
“I could call close-air support from Cobras, Hueys, Apaches, Predators, Hornets, Harriers, B-2 bombers, just about any aircraft with weapons attached to it to support the company,” Slife said.
The job is difficult. Communication is a must. The difference of perspective from Slife’s position on the battlefield compared to the pilot in the sky is significant and to be in sync requires the joint terminal attack controller to speak clearly even while under stress. It also requires map study and an understanding of what the pilot might be seeing from the air.
“The hardest part of being a JTAC is doing a good talk-on,” Slife said. “There are a lot of points you have to hit without messing up. So I can’t talk too much on the radio, or it takes longer for bombs to be dropped. We call it shortening the kill chain -- from the time I start talking to the time it takes to achieve our end state.
“At the same time,” he continued, “I have to coordinate with the aircraft since we’re seeing things from two totally different perspectives. It takes maps and gridded reference graphics so I can know where I’m at and give the pilot an idea of what he’s looking for. Then we can discuss where to hit.”
Slife said he’s good at his job.
“I’m not too pompous to believe that I am the best, but this is something that I excel at in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I love it.”
One of Slife’s most memorable moments was with Battery G, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, during his third tour in Afghanistan in the summer of 2012.
On one patrol his company began taking small-arms fire -- rifle fire, machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. During a brief lull in the attack, a concealed sniper began to harass the Marines with precision fire. At the time, there was a Predator drone in the area supporting Slife with live video through his laptop. Monitoring his computer, Slife noticed a muzzle flash spotted by the Predator’s thermal camera. The shooter was using a “murder hole,” a hole in the wall inside a building where he could safely fire from without being detected.
Uncertain of what or who was inside the structure and wanting to prevent unnecessary damage, Slife instructed his Marines to fire upon the building with only their rifles. Shortly after, two men ran out of the building with one carrying a sniper rifle. They sprinted through a field and stopped by what remained of a lone wall. Slife requested permission from his company commander to fire upon them and got an affirmative.
Bang. A Predator’s hellfire missile eliminated the threat.
“That was my most memorable [call for fire],” Slife said. “I wanted to find [the sniper], but I doubted we would. And [I] happened to see the muzzle flash and I was like, ‘No way!’”
As one of the few JTAC’s in the battalion, Slife’s eager to share his knowledge with others..
“He’s a good-to-go guy,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Corey J. Drew-Bell, a radio operator with Headquarters and Service Battalion., BLT 3/5, 31st MEU, and a native of Aurora, Colorado. “He knows how to pass good knowledge and make things entertaining and interesting.”
Back at Camp Pendleton, Slife and other Marine joint terminal attack controllers ran a prep course at the fire support coordination center. .
“Honestly, I love teaching,” Slife said. “It’s one of the things I enjoy the most. I like passing on knowledge to other Marines, guys who maybe don’t know it, or they do know it, but need a refresher course. I tell the grunts I’ll teach them whatever they want to know about my job.”