Calm in the chaos: combat controllers under pressure

Rumbling down a dirt road in a military cargo truck, a team of special operators quietly wait for any chaos to ensue.

The truck grinds to a halt in an intersection in the forest. A voice squawks over the radio, saying that a roadside bomb has rendered their truck useless. As the group offloads, gunshots ring out, smoke bombs bounce into the circle of trainees and tear gas leaves the Airmen choking. The team surges through the disorder to return fire and take cover in the tree line.

The ground combat team was not in battle; they were combat control students, enduring their tactics field training exercise Aug. 3 at the Combat Control School at Camp Mackall.

The FTX is a culmination of tactics learned in the first year of the combat control team pipeline, which entails weapons handling, team leader procedures, patrol base operations, troop leading and small unit tactics under fire in one mission.

“The Combat Control School curriculum is designed to overwhelm a combat control student’s senses — physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Maj. Trent Joy, the commander of the 352nd Battlefield Airmen Training Squadron. “We train the students to be resilient, to have fortitude and the ability to function in high-stress environments to execute combat control missions around the globe.”

The CCS, or 352nd BATS, is home to a 13-week course that provides CCT qualifications. The training includes physical training, small unit tactics, land navigation, communications, assault zones, demolitions, fire support and field operations, including parachuting. At the completion of this course, each graduate is awarded their 3-skill level, scarlet beret and CCT flash.

“(Each student learns) to be a committed, hard-working quiet professional and team player, fully initiated into special tactics and combat control missions,” said the operations superintendent for the schoolhouse.

The field training mission sounds simple enough: hike through the woods, evade capture, gather intelligence on a small village and setup a landing zone before extraction. But the instructors have their own plan: wreak havoc on the students.

The instructors have a plethora of career experience, including several combat deployments and extensive training in CCT. Acting as opposing forces — riding on all-terrain vehicles with their MK249 light machine gun training weapons — camouflaged in the terrain, they wait for the students to make a mistake. They provide this training up to six times a year.

“The training is as realistic as possible to show the students what they’re up against in a combat environment,” Joy said. “This means we’re ambushing when they least expect it to disorient them and stress the students out. Lives and mission success often depends on a combat controller’s ability to execute the mission in complete chaos.”

Aspiring combat controllers hike up and down the rolling North Carolina hills, signaling quietly to each other to get down, keep their eyes open and do whatever they can to not get caught.

As darkness unfolds on the wooded landscape, students navigate the path with night-optics devices. A kilometer away, instructors shoot flares into the night sky to draw their pupils out into the open as they patrol a small training compound designed like an Afghanistan village. Donned in Afghan-native dress, they scour the brush and swamps looking for clues as to the team’s whereabouts.

Their efforts are wasted, as the students radio in their mission as complete and communicate their extraction rendezvous point. But like the real-world situations these students will encounter, the mission is never over until they’re home. Instructors track the students down to ambush them once more before they announce the end of the exercise.

With the tactics FTX over, the real work begins. Instructors evaluate each student’s performance and leadership characteristics. At the end of the 13 months, only a few will earn the scarlet-red beret. On average, less than 50 percent of the students who walk into CCS will walk away with the title combat controller.

Although earning the scarlet beret is a proud moment in a combat controller’s career, it is not the end of their rigorous training. After the Combat Control Schoolhouse, CCTs continue their pipeline to fine-tune operational skills at the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida during a 12-month program for newly-assigned controllers, which provides mission-ready operators for the Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command.