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Airmen train to wear scarlet beret

  • Published
  • By Lisa Terry McKeown
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Every service in the military has its elite force. The Army has green berets and the Navy has SEALS. In the Air Force, the tip of the spear lies with combat controllers.

Out of the 19,000 Air Force Special Operations Command Airmen, only 375 can claim the coveted title of combat controller.

They are certified air traffic controllers who connect ground forces to their Air Force counterparts any time, any place and under any conditions.

"It's a unique individual (who) has the aptitude and the desire to be a combat controller," said Senior Master Sgt. Marshall, Combat Control School commandant. His last name, as well as other combat controllers' last names, were not released. "It's a mentality and a lifestyle that lasts throughout your career."

Becoming a combat controller is no easy task. Airmen are pushed to their limits as they undergo at least two years of rigorous training. About 45 percent of those who begin the training pipeline never finish it. Even those who earn the right to wear the scarlet beret after successfully completing Combat Control School have no guarantee that they will endure the year of advanced skills training that follows graduation.

Instructors look for Airmen who excel physically, academically and can multitask under pressure and while fatigued.

"Most people think that special operations is just about going in on covert missions and killing things," said Tech. Sgt. Michael, an instructor. "Controllers have to think outside of the box. They have to interlock the air and ground personnel as well as get to the fight, and a lot of times they are the only controller within a team of other special operations forces."

At the school, instructors, who are also combat controllers, pull the skills the students have learned from other courses and tie them together with tactics. They take book-learning and turn it into reality through practical applications like field exercises.

"These days there's not a lot of time to grow up in a team and prepare for real-world operations," Sergeant Marshall said. "We have to make sure that when these men come out of their training as 5-level combat controllers, they are prepared to step out on real-world missions. Within six months of finishing everything, there's a good chance they'll be in the field on the job."

As a reminder of where they have come from, the Combat Control School displays their history in Heritage Hall. The room houses a Vietnam-era uniform, a bullet-ridden door from Mogadishu, Somalia, a weapon from the battle of Roberts Ridge in Afghanistan, and numerous photos of controllers gone before. Silver Stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross line the hallway as a reminder of their "brothers" who have paved the way for the students now in training.

"We're a brotherhood," said Staff Sgt. William, another instructor. "Earning the scarlet beret isn't half what it takes to keep it. It's a lot to live up to, but it's an honor to do it."

"It's amazing when you see how just a few guys can (affect) national-level objectives," Sergeant Marshall said. "You don't often hear about what we do, but controllers are out there every day. They're taking the fight to the enemy and bringing our men home."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The current Combat Control School attrition rate, as of Jan. 30, 2007, is about 60 percent.