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North Star exercise readies expeditionary Airmen for combat

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- An Airman of the 30th Space Wing takes cover and scans his sectors of fire during the North Star exercise on Dec. 13. The exercise prepares and trains Airmen for a possible deployed environment. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- An Airman of the 30th Space Wing takes cover and scans his sectors of fire during the North Star exercise on Dec. 13. The exercise prepares and trains Airmen for a possible deployed environment. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

While visiting staff and patients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, Dec. 12 Maj. Gen. Melissa A. Rank, Assistant Air Force Surgeon General, Medical Force Development and Nursing Services, discusses the comparative technical abilities of Air Force and Army medical technicians with family nurse practitioner Capt. Kathleen McKinney. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott Wagers)

While visiting staff and patients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, Dec. 12 Maj. Gen. Melissa A. Rank, Assistant Air Force Surgeon General, Medical Force Development and Nursing Services, discusses the comparative technical abilities of Air Force and Army medical technicians with family nurse practitioner Capt. Kathleen McKinney. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott Wagers)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Staff Sgts. Jaylynd Brown and Dan Merrill (right), of the 30th Logistics Readiness Squadron, scan the area from a bunker during North Star on Dec. 13. North Star trains Airmen for real world deployed situations. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Staff Sgts. Jaylynd Brown and Dan Merrill (right), of the 30th Logistics Readiness Squadron, scan the area from a bunker during North Star on Dec. 13. North Star trains Airmen for real world deployed situations. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Senior Airman Jennifer Asher of the 30th Medical Group reviews notes to prepare for a mock attack during North Star on Dec. 13. North Star trains Airmen for real world deployed situations. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Senior Airman Jennifer Asher of the 30th Medical Group reviews notes to prepare for a mock attack during North Star on Dec. 13. North Star trains Airmen for real world deployed situations. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Christopher Hubenthal)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Staff Sgt. Dan Merrill, 30th Logistics Readiness Squadron, looks out of his defensive checkpoint during North Star on Dec. 13.  Vandenberg Airmen participated in this three-day exercise to practice expeditionary techniques. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Olds)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Staff Sgt. Dan Merrill, 30th Logistics Readiness Squadron, looks out of his defensive checkpoint during North Star on Dec. 13. Vandenberg Airmen participated in this three-day exercise to practice expeditionary techniques. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Olds)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A cross-section of the base put their skills to the test during the December North Star exercise here to prepare for the next Air Expeditionary Force bucket, which is set to deploy next year.

To train Airmen for deployment to hostile locations, the exercise puts them in situations like the ones they may experience in the field. They pack bags, grab weapons and literally deploy for three days and two nights as an operational expeditionary group in support of an air field.

The Airmen work, eat and sleep in a campground called Base X and react to simulated scenarios; ones which could involve mortar fire or ground assaults.

The situations, designed to be as real as possible, are planned with the combined experience and ingenuity of experts from Vandenberg's EET, or Exercise Evaluation Team, like Tech. Sgt. James Haleski.

"We try to mirror true-to-life current conditions from expeditionary locations and give them the most realistic scenarios," said the NCOIC of Inspections and Exercises with the 30th Space Wing Inspector General's office.

"We do this by analyzing the media and bringing to the table the personal experiences of the people who are coming back from the AOR."

Sergeant Haleski's team of evaluators is as diverse as the Airmen participants. They monitor initial reactions of the Airmen and provide follow-up. That instant feedback at home could mean the difference between precision and error once the Airmen are in theater making decisions in triage, driving convoys or responding to an attack.

Halfway through the exercise, and with a little training from Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the EET team set off several ground-burst charges to test the Airmen's response to mortar fire. The controlled detonation shattered the cold calm of the afternoon, and Airmen ran to defensive positions.

With his face hidden behind a gas mask and black rubber gloves on his hands, Airman 1st Class David Haldi crouched near a water tank and went over survival techniques from the Airman's Manual with Master Sgt. Adam Thompson. The Airman's Manual is a critical tool for an Airman, not only in the field, but during operational or expeditionary readiness inspections.

"If this was the ERI or ORI and the inspectors asked you a question, if you get it wrong, it would count against us. Always have your Airman's Manual on you," Sergeant Thompson said.

Mock casualties lay on the ground following the attack. They had been pulled by Lt. Col. Gregory Frick of Bioenvironmental to be made up in moulage, or mock injury makeup. Acting the roles of the injured, they waited for help to arrive and get them to triage.

In front of the triage tent, Tech. Sgt. John Coria sorted the mock casualties by the seriousness of their injuries. Helping him, Senior Airman James Romig waved a transparent blue box over the mock victims to simulate the steps to detect chemical contamination. Anyone who contacted chemical weapons would have to be decontaminated before they could go to the triage area, he said.

Elsewhere, other Airmen responded to mock unexploded ordnance. The olive-drab tail of a mortar sat in the dirt outside a building. The Airman had to simulate a real cordon. Senior Airman Jorge Delpozo stood guard less than 15 feet away, to warn people to stay clear of the area. He pulled a quick reference guide from his pocket, with references to fixing jammed weapons or performing self-aid, buddy care. Pointing to the unexploded ordnance cordon guide, he said, "for a UXO this size, we would really be 500 feet away."

Other things in the exercise were also done in miniature, like when EOD used a small amount of charge to simulate safe rendering of a 24-inch dummy rocket-propelled grenade. The explosion made little more noise than the pop of a champagne bottle. Even in miniature, it served its purpose.

"This is training on our actual procedures," said Nelson Almodovar a contractor with EOD. "And we build teamwork with the other functions of the camp."

North Star gives Airmen the opportunity to work with each other as if they were in the deployed environment, so they can make mistakes without consequences. It's the right kind of training, said Lt. Col. Michael Roth, the commander of the exercise camp.

"This exercise makes combat-ready Airmen," he said. "We are all combat Airmen."

That means North Star has combat Airmen training combat Airmen. Wearing desert uniforms to set themselves apart from the participants, four security forces played the role of opposition forces, shooting blank rounds at the camp from the cover of trees, or staging break-ins on the base perimeter. One of them, Tech. Sgt. Brian Viceroy, said he wanted to see their reaction to the mock attacks.

"We've all been to the front in Iraq, and we know how to test them on all angles," he said.

Those at the inspector general's office looked for motivation among the participants as the key factor in how well the participants did. Capt. Jennifer Holthaus, chief of Inspections and Exercises, said she was pleased with how the wing worked together to draft the script to this exercise.

"I think the script is better. We're relying on organizations to provide their areas of expertise. It used to be one person, who was good, doing this all by himself. The quality is better when the experts write the script, making the exercise more effective," she said.

More effective exercises mean more battle-ready combat Airmen. As many of the Air Force's roles fall upon the duties traditionally held by the U.S. Army, more and more Airmen will continue to need exercises like North Star to prepare them for deployment.