By Master Sgt. Kimberley Harrison, U.S. AFCENT Combat Camera
/ Published April 23, 2010
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- U.S. Air Force and Army members conducted a joint, force-protection patrol, April 14, near one of the U.S. Air Force's Central Command's main airbases in Iraq.
The Air Force's 532nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron 'Lions' and the Army's 1st of the 28th Infantry Battalion 'Destroyers' teamed up and armed up to conduct a mounted and dismounted patrol in search of hidden weapons caches and improvised explosive-making materials.
In today's military, the Air Force is conducting more missions traditionally done by the U.S. Army, and joint operations are now considered the norm and not the exception.
The 532nd ESFS isn't your back-home, run-of-the-mill Security Forces unit used to patrol on a base or pass out speeding tickets.
The Lions are unique Air Force defenders who conduct outside-the-wire missions, specifically tasked with protecting assets here from potentially deadly indirect-fire (IDF) attacks.
Threat levels are naturally high in a deployed environment - but are magnified once outside the safety perimeter of the installation.
There are many people who sit patiently watching and waiting for an opportunity to disrupt the U.S. efforts and cause bodily harm to the U. S. forces who are rebuilding Iraq structurally and militarily.
"Terrain denial and preventing IDF attacks is our goal," said Tech. Sgt. David Banton, deployed from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
After the required mission briefings from both Air Force and Army, defenders geared up with 70-plus pounds of body armor, helmets, weapons, ammunition and water then loaded onto mine resistant ambush protected (MRAPs) vehicles for the drive outside the base.
"Drivers are vital to the mission," Sergeant Banton said.
The Airman responsible for driving the 30,000-pound MRAP over rough, uneven and sometimes unstable terrain has one of the most important jobs of all - ensuring safe travel.
"There are times we need to cross a bridge or a canal and there is only a few inches of space on either side of the tires," said Airman 1st Class Jesse Ketchum, Buchanan, Mich., native also deployed from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. "That can make travel extremely difficult."
If the driver doesn't take the time to review the route and determine whether the travel path is navigable, they could not only endanger the integrity of the mission, but the lives of the members the drivers are transporting, said Airman 1st Class Corey Kuhn, another Airman deployed from Vandenberg.
SrA LaRita Nalls, MRAP gunner, deployed from Andrews AFB, MD, agrees safety is very important.
Just as the convoy driver, the gunner has a tremendous task during the patrols. They're the eyes and ears for detecting possible threats throughout the convoy mission. The gunner must maintain the security of the vehicle and surrounding perimeter during dismounted patrols.
"It's my responsibility for ensuring the perimeter is secure," said Airman Nalls from Buffalo, NY. "I need to ensure safe and easy access in and out of the vehicles for our troops... safety is paramount."
Driving on unknown roads is not the only unchartered territory for this specialized team.
"We're starting to slowly come into this particular area," said Capt. Michael Cohen, 352nd ESFS team lead and Security Forces Academy instructor deployed from Lackland AFB, Texas.
Through counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts, such as meeting and greeting the locals and putting a human face on the U. S. military instead of being viewed as big, unfeeling machines driving through villages will hopefully lead to trust and friendship.
"Part of COIN is to establish the relationships with the village sheiks and local leaders," said Captain Cohen. "We've built a lot of bridges...a lot of relationships."
"It's not help us secure your country," said Sergeant Banton, Charlie truck commander, "it's let us help you secure your country."
"This is what we're trained to do," Captain Cohen said. "We are very focused and mindful about our mission."
While checking for signs of foot traffic, disrupted earth, covered holes and historic sites of IDF attacks, the dismounted patrol also keeps an ever-watchful eye on their surroundings while smiling and waving at local villagers.
"The last thing we want is to be complacent and this is a unique mission," said Rapid City, Mich., native Sergeant Banton. "Going outside the base security zone and talking to the people. We're more offensive... we're out there taking that terrain, taking those opportunities away from the bad guys and actually utilizing it."
"We're in a non-kinetic phase of counterinsurgency," Captain Cohen said. "But right now it's important to become friends and let them know we're here to help; show them they're able to take control of their own destiny, their own country."
"If I can go out and have a 30-minute conversation with someone where everything is secure and laugh together, it shows I'm human - they're human," Sergeant Banton said. "If I can give them a little bit of that easy feeling and change a few people out here, those are less people I have to worry about when we're out on those roads."
The more trips outside the wire they make, the better chances at reducing IDF attacks.
"Most of the people here are hard workers, all they want to do is farm, make some money and live," Sergeant Banton said.
Utilizing air assets, ground assets and human assets, the 532nd ESFS, sometimes in a combined effort with the Army, enthusiastically goes out day after day in hopes of disrupting one more IDF or IED attempts.
Working with their Army counterparts has proven to have advantages.
"There is lot more flexibility on where we go and what we can do when we conduct missions with the Army because they're the battle-space owner of this particular area," said Airman Kuhn, New Orleans native. "This gives us the opportunity to see how another unit does certain things, especially since they've done this type of mission longer."
As the Army continues to draw down, joint operations such as this prepare the 532nd ESFS for the responsibility.
"I think it's better the Air Force understands the kinetic side of the house, understands the outer patrols, how to deal with IDF and how to deal with the locals," said 1st Lt. Everage Robinson, 1-28 Destroyer platoon leader, deployed from Ft. Riley, Kansas.
"Missions such as this continue to increase their abilities to deal with those types of issues and that makes for a better situation for U.S. forces who remain in Iraq," said Lieutenant Robinson, a native of Jesup, GA. "We've patrolled these grounds, we've walked them together and it's been fun."
The 532nd ESFS Lions have made a positive impression on their Army Destroyer counterparts and will continue to do what they do best - protect Joint Base Balad from IDF attacks.
"They've impressed us with what they can do and how much they can learn in a short period of time," Lieutenant Robinson said. "They can go out with us one time and retain that knowledge and are ready to utilize it on their next patrol."
"Little by little we're getting to do more and more," Sergeant Banton said. "By us going out and conducting these patrols, we've prevented a lot of bad things from happening."