On the shores of the Emerald Coast, candidates from all walks of Air Force life approach the sand, covered in salt and grit, their uniforms soaked with seawater as the warm Florida sun beats down on their red faces.
A team of cadre shouts commands at the candidates to confuse them, stress them out and push their bodies to the limit.
Before the group has a chance to evaluate their situation, the instructors push them through more assessments, continuously asking each candidate one important question: Do they have what it takes?
Special tactics career field training pipelines are some of the most aphysically and psychologically challenging in the Air Force. To ensure the correct individuals are on the battlefield, a group of special tactics Airmen weed out the cross-training candidates who don’t meet the high standards, putting them through a weeklong selection process to select only the best-qualified individuals.
This group is known as the Recruitment, Assessment and Selection (RAS) team from the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field.
What’s little known is that members of the RAS team are from special tactics career fields, so they know firsthand what it takes to make it through the training pipelines.
“The candidates are going to be challenged mentally and physically, and what we’re doing is looking for certain attributes,” said Master Sgt. Ismael Villegas, the squadron’s RAS section chief. “Those attributes are what we believe will make them successful in special tactics training pipelines.”
The assessment process is broken down into a five-day process where RAS cadres put candidates through demanding tasks that test their physical ability, mental flexibility, leadership skills and psychological state of mind.
“It was the most physically-demanding week of training I had yet been to — the team of candidates (was) strong physically, but the cadre managed to push us all to our limits,” said 1st Lt. Daniel Bieber, who went through special tactics officer selection in 2013. “While the physical demands of the week were obviously very tough, the cadre wanted to see those who could take the physical stress in stride and still keep their heads to accomplish complex tasks, and keep track of team members.”
When Airmen cross train into special tactics it becomes important to test their leadership skills, Villegas said, citing his personal experience coming up through the combat control pipeline.
“When I was coming through as an Airman, our lieutenant and our staff sergeants in our team quit,” Villegas said. “As a young Airman, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into and when you see these seasoned guys with experience, who have been in for a while, you think to yourself, ‘If these guys can’t hack it, I don’t have a chance.’ It really brings the team down, so we need to ensure we pick the right candidates who will help the younger Airmen push themselves.”
The focus on finding the best-qualified recruit has led the RAS cadres to have a considerable amount of success, according to Villegas. Before the addition of the RAS program, the attrition rates for cross training current Airmen into special tactics pipelines was about 80 percent. Since its implementation, those numbers have flip-flopped.
“From a financial standpoint, we’re saving the Air Force a lot of time and a lot of money,” said Villegas, referring to the long and expensive process of creating a battle-ready special tactics Airmen. “We do our best to pick the right candidate with the highest chance of success. They’re going to be leading these Airmen and pushing the ones who want to quit.”
Staff Sgt. Stephen Culbertson, a combat control student with STTS and a former selection candidate, credits the difficulty of the program with preparing cross-training NCOs with the correct mindset.
As an NCO going through the combat control pipeline, Culbertson explained he had to worry about more than just getting through the pipeline — he also had young Airmen to lead.
“I take this very seriously as I am sometimes their first impression of what working with an NCO is like,” he said. “They look to me for guidance, mentorship and decision making. If I am struggling physically or mentally in a course, then my ability to lead them drastically declines.”
In addition to the selection process, an integral piece of the RAS program is to recruit Airmen who are currently working in other career fields.
The RAS educates the general Air Force audience about special tactics and provides them information and the criteria and how to properly train and better prepare for selection. Members of the team visit two to three bases a month and meet with groups of 40-60 Airmen, who often flood the RAS with questions about special tactics officer, pararescue, special operations weather and combat control career fields.
“Obviously education is a big part of the recruiting process, but putting a face and name to the special tactics community and showing the Airmen their goals of becoming an operator are obtainable is huge,” Villegas said. “Most guys think that special tactics Airmen are these unearthly forces, but when our people visit these bases, Airmen see that we are just extremely fit, and they can work to that level too.”
The RAS team is dedicated to this mission because it means their legacy will continue with another generation of warriors who belong to the ground special operations forces.
“At the end of the day, we are training these Airmen to replace us in this career field,” Villegas said.