HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — It’s been 5,000 days of struggle, rugged landscapes, blood and sweat.
It’s been 5,000 days of exhaustion, injuries and long separations from family, friends and home.
On June 27, the 17th Special Tactics Squadron marked 5,000 days of unremitting war.
Members’ 5,000-day epoch began in October 2001, one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the 17th STS deployed to Southwest Asia with the U.S. Army Rangers. Since then, the squadron has been continuously deployed for almost 14 years in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
“I’ve seen an extreme dedication to the mission,” said Chief Master Sgt. Troy Lundquist, the 17th STS senior enlisted manager. “Our focus has constantly been downrange and working to accomplish the mission to the best of our ability.”
The 17th STS, located at Fort Benning, Georgia, primarily consists of tactical air control party Airmen, who provide joint terminal attack control by directing combat aircraft engaged in close air support and other offensive strike operations from a forward position.
The 17th STS is unique in the U.S. military as the only special tactics unit made up solely of TACP Airmen to support the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. Approximately 5 percent of TACPs are selected as special operators from their previous assignments in support of conventional ground forces to a special operations forces capacity.
“We’re fortunate to be able to select from a talented pool of dedicated TACPs, who desire to take on a special operations mission,” said Lundquist, who has served as a TACP for 29 years.
The 17th STS has a long-storied, valorous impact on the special operations battlefield since 9/11, with members receiving more than 80 high valor medals for courage in combat.
“I’m very proud to be associated with the men of the 17th STS, formerly the (17th) Air Support Operations Squadron,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jason Quesenberry, a Silver Star recipient currently serving with the 1st Air Support Operations Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. “Their unmatched commitment and contribution has been astounding. Five thousand days continuously deployed is amazing for such a small unit.”
These medals are not the reason the Airmen of the 17th STS have fought for more than a decade. Instead, the decorations showcase their capacity to accomplish the tasks set before them, whether it is clearing drug and weapon caches or eliminating potential suicide bomb kits that endanger the local populace.
In the last year alone, the 17th’s TACPs have completed more than 1,300 combat missions with their Army Ranger teammates to integrate airpower into the special operations battlefield and eliminate nearly 1,400 enemy insurgents.
“Night after night, the TACPs of the 17th (STS) are making major contributions to special operations forces on the battlefield,” Quesenberry said. “They bring an entirely new level of airpower expertise to the ground force.”
But mission success has come with a heavy price — a toll of wounded warriors forever etched into the heart of the squadron.
“We walk down the halls every day and see the guys on the wall; we’ve seen the guys who have jumped into combat,” said Maj. Chris Wright, the 17th STS director of operations.
In addition to the challenges of a high-operations tempo, the physical burden is tremendous during deployment, and sleep is a rarity, with most downtime being spent planning for the next mission, said Master Sgt. Andre Vanslee, a former 17th STS team flight chief.
“We were constantly going,” Vanslee said. “For a while, every night I was going on missions, sometimes twice a night, maybe even three times — sometimes getting woken up in the middle of the day, that’s when you sleep, to do kinetic strikes, right after going to bed. Then I’d be up all day and going on a mission that night — it’s pretty busy.”
As special operators are trained to do, they adapted and overcame. A large part of dealing with the stress of constant war is the camaraderie between the special tactics Airmen.
“I have never known a stronger bond than with the guys from my 17th (STS) days, both Air Force and Army Ranger,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Case, a member of the 18th Air Support Operations Group and a former 17th STS TACP. “These guys are brothers for life, and I know that I can count on them for the rest of my life and beyond. We are called to serve, and we go forth and serve regardless of our personal thoughts.”
Case, who is only the 17th U.S. military member to receive two Silver Stars since 9/11, often attributes his success to the community surrounding him.
“I firmly believe that, of the other (TACPs), 98 percent-plus of them would have done what I did,” Case said of his fellow Airmen.
Sacrificing isn’t necessarily exclusive to special tactics Airmen, as their families sacrificed days, weeks, months and even years in support of their loved ones. The constant string of deployments and exercises creates a support system from the families within the squadron.
“The sacrifices they’ve made for the 5,000 days — it’s just unbelievable,” Wright said. “All the people and families who have made this happen, it’s incredible.”
In part due to the professionalism, camaraderie and family support of the 17th STS, the TACP Airmen are proud to support the 75th Ranger Regiment, whose mission is to conduct large-scale, joint forcible entry operations and surgical special operations raids across the globe.
“We’re fortunate to work with some of the Army’s best Soldiers, officers and leaders that make up the 75th Ranger Regiment,” Lundquist said. “The way they conduct themselves professionally and operationally has always had a huge impact on the 17th (STS) TACPs. In working with the Rangers and having the support of our special tactics enterprise and AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) assets, our TACPs are definitely set up for success.”
Today, the 17th STS continues to integrate airpower into ground special operations all over the world with competence, proficiency and grit that is required of a ground special operations force.
The 5,000th day of war will pass as another day comes, but despite the challenges, the men and women of the 17th STS will continue to sacrifice to get the job done.