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Saving A Wild Boar

Saving A Wild Boar

Air Commandos Support the International Thai Cave Rescue Effort

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 10 Issue 3, February 2022, pages 32-37

By Lt Col (Ret) Matthew Durham

The US military team delivered search and rescue experience and capacity to the tremendous efforts provided by Thai authorities and international search and rescue teams. (Photo by Capt Jessica Tait)

On Saturday, July 23rd, the Moo Pa, roughly translated to Wild Boars, a junior association football team (“soccer” to Americans–“football” to the rest of the world) from Chiang Rai province, on the northern border of Thailand, had just finished practice and planned a quick trip. It was later reported they traveled to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system to celebrate a birthday, with lots of food. This turned out to be incorrect. They rode their bikes up to the nearby cave entrance simply to explore the cave a little. They were led by the Boars’ 25 year-old assistant coach, Ekkaphon Chantawong, a trained Buddhist monk. After parking their bikes 12 boys, ages 11-16 and Coach Ek entered the cave. Almost as soon as they went into the darkness it began raining. Hard.
Point in fact, in 2018 the monsoon season had arrived two to three weeks early in northern Thailand. There were signs posted advising not to get beyond the entrance of the 6.2 mile-long cave from July-November, the rainy season, but it was not supposed to be the rainy season quite yet. The cave system is in the Doi Nang Non mountain range and is called “the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady,” which it vaguely resembles, a woman laying on her back. As the rain continued, the porous limestone ground on top of the cave leaked water into the cave system itself, creating flooded chambers. As the chambers flooded, the Wild Boars were forced back deeper into the dark cave. After Coach Ek unsuccessfully tried to swim out, they eventually found themselves on a rock ledge, almost two and one half miles from the cave entrance, and no one knew they were there.
One man was looking for them, though. Wild Boars head coach Nopprat Kanthawong had checked his phone about 7 p.m. and found 20 missed calls, all from parents wondering where their kids were. He started calling every team number he had listed, until he reached a 13-year old Boar who got picked up after practice. He told the coach the rest of the team and Coach Ek were planning on biking to the cave and doing a little exploring. Nopprat sped up to the cave entrance and easily found their bikes and packs, but no Wild Boars. He did find lots of water in the cave and it was rising. Fearing the worst he immediately notified authorities.
Thus began an underground rescue operation that would eventually involve approximately 10,000 volunteers, including Thai Army and Special Forces, divers from around the globe, doctors, mining specialists, military and civilian rescue specialists from 38 different countries, from Ireland to India and just about everywhere in-between, with over 100 government agencies represented. Hundreds of media descended upon the rapidly growing base camp. Helicopters flew, ambulances hurried, and food trucks began to arrive. The Wild Boar families had been sent for and were being bedded down. The camp had everything but the kids. Nobody had found the Wild Boars yet. As each hour passed it was becoming harder to be overly optimistic about “the boys in the cave.”

Air Commandos meet with Royal Thai military officials and a Thai engineering company to advise and assist in the rescue operation. (Photo by Capt Jessica Tait)

The United States government, in all its power and might, is good at many things. Unfortunately, the government is also known for its levels of bureaucracy. As the requests for help went out, the US Embassy in Bangkok contacted their desk at the State Department in Washington DC, who then contacted the Department of Defense, also in Washington, who contacted Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), who notified Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC), who immediately contacted an organization known to be quite good, and practiced, in moving quickly. Air Force Special Operations Command’s 353rd Special Operations Group, headquartered at Kadena AB, Okinawa, was told to prepare to deploy for rescue support. Less than 19 hours after SOCPAC was notified, the 353rd had rescuers inside the cave. They were joined by members of the 31st Rescue Squadron from the 18th Wing, host unit of Kadena. The approximately 40 personnel had flown into Chiang Mai airport on two of the 1st Special Operations Squadron’s MC-130J Commando II aircraft after receiving special permission to overfly the country of Vietnam. It was now early morning of June 28 and, aside from the team’s footprints leading into the cave, no one had found anything yet. The Wild Boars had been in the cave, unheard from, for nearly five days.
It was not from any lack of effort that nothing was found early on. The Thai authorities knew of a local man that could be of help. The first official diver to enter the cave was 63 year-old British expat Vernon Unsworth. As divine providence would have it Unsworth was an experienced cave diver, lived about an hour south of the cave entrance and had been planning to dive the Tham Luang Nang Nong system, with which he was already familiar, that very day. Unsworth advised the Thai government to contact the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC). Hearing of the dilemma, the BCRC rushed three experienced cave divers to the cave , arriving one day before the 353rd. Thai Navy SEAL divers had been in the cave since June 25, but even using bright lighting the water was so murky it was impossible to operate. Sniffer dogs were used above the cave to try to find a crevasse where engineers could look at drilling down from above. Drones and robots would soon join them. It continued to rain.
The members of the 353rd arrived and went to work. However, they had to look at things realistically. The Wild Boars had not even been found yet. When they arrived at about 2 a.m. on the 28th, there was a trickle of water in one part of the cave. In one hour it had risen to two feet. Major Charles Hodges, a Citadel graduate from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron and the mission commander later said, “When we arrived it was worse than had been painted. I thought it was highly probable we would never find these kids.”
Special Tactics is not formally trained in cave diving rescues, but they are outstanding at planning difficult missions. Members of the 320th began working with the unit in charge, the Thai SEALS, to come up with an extraction plan if or when the Wild Boars were found; a plan that would have a chance of success without killing kids or rescuers. MSgt Derek Anderson of the 320th became a lead planner for the extraction. It was an all-international team effort but Anderson is generally given credit for drafting the plan that ended up successfully saving the kids. It involved a complicated scheme of dropping hundreds of necessary air tanks at various points to supply the Wild Boars and the extracting divers. That, and the guide rope system, was complicated, but it could work. The Air Force team of the 320th and the 31st had already examined the possibility of pumping water out and drilling down from above. Hodges contacted Chevron Oil in Bangkok and quickly found it unworkable, too complicated, and too lengthy.
Battling rising water and swift currents, two of the BCRC cave divers, Richard Staunton and John Volanthen, a Belgian cave diver and a French diver, Maksym Polejaka, began searching the cave and setting up guidelines for other divers. The rain continued to fall and the water rose. Operations had to be suspended until the weather improved. On July 2 Volanthen was setting guidelines and ran out of rope. He surfaced in a cave chamber and in the darkness smelled something… human. The Wild Boars had been found. They were weakened and confused, but passably healthy. Coach Ek had kept the kids calm, told them to drink the clearest water possible and had given the kids all of his food. Word was passed down the line. Thanks to those hundreds of media on site, the good news rocketed around the world. Hours later, seven Thai military personnel, including a doctor and a medic, made the extremely difficult trip to the Wild Boars, bringing medical supplies, high calorie food, and clean water. Four of the seven volunteered to stay with the Wild Boars for the duration. They would be the last to leave the cave. Now the real challenge began.
How were they going to get 12 kids and a coach, most of whom could not swim, and none with diving experience, out of a flooded cave two and a half miles back, with twist, turns, changes in elevation and some openings as small as 15 X 28 inches? It would take some of the best cave divers in the world five hours with the current, and six hours against it, just to get back and forth to the Wild Boar’s ledge. As the world rejoiced at the news the rescue experts took a real, deep sigh. This was going to be very, very dangerous.
“It’s zero visibility, it’s cold, and it’s far, far back into a cave. There were never any guarantees and I remember Major Hodges saying specifically there’s maybe a 60 percent chance of survivability. We were completely honest when briefing the Thai leadership that we were expecting casualties. Even though we did as much mission planning and rehearsals as possible, no one had ever done anything like this before.” said Anderson.
Alternatives were examined. A shaft was found that sank to 900 meters, but it was not enough. During the rescue operation over 100 shafts were drilled, but none were sufficient. There was serious consideration by the Thai government to constantly resupply the Wild Boars, wait months for the monsoon season to end and have them walk out. This would have meant an almost constant train of divers shuttling supplies back two and a half miles through a mostly flooded cave. You could almost guarantee casualties. Then there was the oxygen, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. On July 6, the oxygen level had dropped. By July 8, the oxygen level was less than normal and becoming dangerous. Engineers looked at the possibility of running an oxygen line back to the Wild Boar’s chamber but quickly deemed it next to impossible in the timeframe. The Thai government naturally wanted the safest possible extraction, just wait it out, but time was quickly evaporating.
“We were explaining it was time to fish or cut bait,” said Hodges.” If you don’t do something now the cave will make the decision for you. Five or six months from now, when the water recedes, we will be lucky to find remains.”
The experienced divers and Thai SEALS examined and contributed to MSgt Anderson’s plan. Cave divers would have to lead the Wild Boars out one at a time. Slowly, deliberately and carefully. Practice missions were already being run in a nearby pool and a rope system to get the divers accustomed to the size of the twist and turns had been put into place. Normally a mission this intricate would call for months of practice. There was no time.
As if to emphasize the danger, on July 6, a volunteer and former Thai Navy diver, Saman Kunan, died while helping deliver the almost endless need for fresh diving air tanks. It is often thought that Kunan was the only casualty in the rescue operation, but there were several injuries and another Thai SEAL diver, Beruit Pakbara, contracted blood poisoning while in the cave and died that December. On the same day Kunan died, oxygen levels on Wild Boar ledge dropped to 15 percent, down from the normal 21 percent and more rain was forecast. The plan had to be initiated and the rescue extraction had to be moved up.
At the same time, one member of the 353rd had an unexpected role. Capt Jessica Tait, the 353rd Public Affairs Officer, deployed to on-site as rescue support, unexpectedly found herself the face and voice of the rescue for the English-speaking public of the world. This was a little more complicated than at first glance. Tait had been sent with the 320th/31st initial package because the Thai Cave Rescue was already a world-wide story when they received orders. On the ground she became the focal point for the English speaking media, and was expected to arrange interviews and give updates for everyone. The possible sensitive issue of US heavy messaging and “taking credit” with an American military member speaking for a Thai-led operation was always discussed between the State Department, OSD/PA, and AFSOC/PA. Tait consistently emphasized this was a Thai operation and the United States, along with all the other nations, were in support. Apparently, she got that point across. The King of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, later asked to meet Tait and expressed his gratitude.
On July 8, the cave entrance was cleared and over 90 international divers, including those from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, the 31st Rescue Squadron and US medical personnel were stationed along the staging areas deep inside the cave. The water was still so muddy that the support divers’ air regulators would often malfunction due to the mud buildup. All aspects of the plan had to be precise; there was no room for error. A team of 13 international cave divers and five Thai SEALS began their hours long journey back to the Wild Boars. The team included an Australian doctor, Richard Harris, who would administer the anesthetic Ketamine to render the boys going out of the cave unconscious. It had been decided that it was safer to guide them through the maze of muddy water, rocks, twists and small openings if they were unconscious and therefore would be no chance of them panicking and endangering both themselves and their rescuers. They were also given the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Atropine to steady their heart rates. The Ketamine was effective for 45 minutes to an hour, meaning the escorting divers, trained by Dr. Harris, had to re-administer a dose of Ketamine. The Thai government gave Dr. Harris and two of his assistants diplomatic immunity in case something went wrong. At various cave chambers they were quickly examined by medical personnel before being sent on.
The boys were dressed in wet suits, with positive pressure full face masks and a harness. Handles were attached to their backs to allow them to be “carried” in the water. They were also tethered to their escort. Divers at various points carefully pushed, pulled and lifted the boys, always careful not to bump their heads or masks on the ever-present jagged rocks. The escorting divers ensured their heads were always above the unconscious boys so if there was an unseen rock in the muddy water the divers would hit their head instead of the boys’.
“It wasn’t going to be an issue of visibility,” said Hodge. “Visibility was always going to be bad. They were kicking up so much silt that the concern was mud getting into the regulators. The guy in front would start and the guy behind him would have mud in his regulator.”
The trip was arduous on the divers. When the boys made it to a dry spot in the cave, they were met by three other divers, taken out of their dive gear and at one stop they had to be dragged on a stretcher approximately 600 feet across slippery rocks and wet sand hills to the next demarcation point. There they were medically examined, put back into their dive gear and sent on the next part of their journey. In Chamber 3 they were alternately carried and transported by zip line, installed by rock climbers, to the cave entrance. The route remained partially flooded and rescuers later recalled how tough that part of the journey proved. The first day that Chamber 3 section took five hours alone, though at the end, practice and improvements had reduced it to a little over one hour. At the cave entrance an ambulance awaited to take them to Changrai Prachanukfroh Hospital where doctors found the Wild Boars had lost, on average, approximately four and a half pounds apiece, but were generally in good shape. The boys wore sunglasses while their eyes readjusted to light and were checked for any infections.
How was it decided who would go first? They considered youngest to oldest or the weakest to strongest. Actually, Coach Ek said the boys were all “still strong,” mentally and physically. Then they left it to the Wild Boars themselves to decide who went first. After talking they reasoned the boys living farthest away from the cave should go first. They could ride their bikes and tell everyone where the others were and would be coming out shortly. They had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact the world was watching and nobody was going to let them bike ride off into the sunset. A decision was reached by the on-site Thai divers and the first four were quickly prepared.
That first day four boys were taken from the cave. The rescuers knew that they would need 10-20 hours to resupply the cave route with air tanks, medical equipment and other supplies. For once the weather had cooperated—it had stopped raining. That, and efficiencies cut down the amount of time it took to transport the kids the required two and a half miles. However, it remained a tough go.

Thai rescue authorities work together to support the staging of equipment for pumping operations. (Photo by Capt Jessica Tait)

On July 9, four more Wild Boars were rescued. The weather, and the luck held. Again, the difficult and still dangerous procedure of resupply had to be accomplished. The cave had proven several times it was unforgiving of mistakes. On July 10, the remaining four Wild Boars left the cave, along with Coach Ek. Mission accomplished? Well, the Wild Boars had been saved but approximately 100 divers, volunteers, and medical personnel remained in the flooded cave, most almost a mile back, with a few even farther from the entrance. The cave rescue was not done.
Almost immediately after the last ambulance left, water began rapidly rising in Chamber 3. It is thought the main water line, pumping water out of the cave, had broken. Pumps had been installed early on to help bring down the water in the cave. With all the rain the pumps were never expected to be the final solution. However, the pumps had removed the equivalent of 400 Olympic-sized pools of water and with the short dry spell had actually made a little progress in the water levels. As soon as the kids and Coach EK left the cave, the pumps stopped and water rose rapidly. The codeword for “drop everything and get out” was issued. Air tanks, equipment, all of it had to be abandoned. Workers and divers moved in an orderly way, but quickly, for the entrance. They began to work against the advancing water. By the time the Thai divers, deepest in the cave when the pumps broke, made their way to the entrance, only about an 18 inch air pocket remained. Everyone was out.
Looking back, it probably should not have worked as well as it did. Everyone on the inside expected casualties, but that did not happen. They were justifiably proud, but it took a little while.
“The actual core of rescuers, were all kind of exhausted, but kind of in awe that we had pulled this off over a three-day period. Everyone was pretty quiet, just rinsing off our gear. The very next day the hotel had a dinner for us and we were able to relax a little bit and take in what had just happened,” said Anderson.
What had happened had some interesting side notes. The oldest of the Wild Boars, Phiraphat Samphianghai, turned 17 years old while in the cave. In fact, while the world literally came together to rescue them, four of the Wild Boars and Coach Ek had no country to call their own. Belonging to tribes that extended across the borders of Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar, they were considered technically “stateless,” and could not be issued a passport or technically be allowed to leave the Chiang Rai providence. The team had run into past difficulties when playing outside of Chiang Rai. After the rescue the four “stateless” Wild Boars and Coach Ek were officially made Thai citizens.
Was Coach Ek held responsible by the parents and an army of lawyers for leading the Wild Boar youths into the cave? Not at all. The parents forgave Coach Ek and actually showed appreciation for all he did while spending two weeks with their boys, in a dark and flooded cave. The Thai cultural outlook is both forgiving and graceful.
Many people like hearing or reading about the rescue. It was a time when the world literally came together to help the helpless. China had sent two teams, with robots and a 3D imager, to work alongside Americans. The Czech government had tried to deploy four large water pumps, but the ground was found to be too unstable. Space-X CEO Elon Musk had his engineers design a “kid-sized submarine”, but it was deemed too impractical. Musk then got into a somewhat bizarre feud with one of the Australian divers, but at least he tried to contribute. In all, best-selling books were written, documentaries were produced and at the time of this writing a large-scale movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Viggo Mortenson, Colin Farrell, and Joel Eggerton is currently shooting. It is to be entitled 13 Lives.
The “Quiet Professionals” from the 353rd? They gathered what equipment they could, made their way back to the airport and boarded their MC-130Js, tired and relieved. The flight back to Kadena would take a bit longer because the country of Vietnam had denied their overflight. Vietnam’s rationale was “The crisis is now over.”


About the Author: Matt Durham served on the AFSOC headquarters Public Affairs staff for over 19 years, under eight different commanders as both officer and civilian. He has deployed to Haiti, the Bosnian AOR, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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Task Force Viking and the UGLY BABY Mission

Task Force Viking and the UGLY BABY Mission

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 9 Issue 2, October 2020, pages 34-41

By Colonel Cory Peterson, USAF (Retired)

The “Ugly Baby” infiltration was the key element that opened the northern front in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and was incredibly significant to the overall campaign in Iraq. While small advance force elements were on the ground in the KAZ, they lacked the combat power to accomplish the mission of fixing 13 Iraqi divisions (two thirds of the Iraqi Army) to prevent them from interfering with the main invasion force’s drive towards Baghdad. The audacious air maneuver successfully inserted the bulk of two battalions of Green Berets and convinced the Turks to allow subsequent overflight.
— Lt General Ken Tovo, USA, (Retired)
TF Viking Iraq coin

The US and its coalition partners began planning Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) months before the actual D-Day on 19 Mar 2003. The strategic plan for the initial invasion called for a two-pronged assault from the south on Baghdad by coalition forces, coupled with a simultaneous northern attack by the US 4th Infantry Division (ID) supported by US SOF partnered with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The intent behind the northern assault was to fix 13 Iraqi divisions in place and prevent them from moving south to oppose the main coalition effort, while also protecting the vital oil fields in the around Mosul. The 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), commanded by COL Charles Cleveland, was given the task to plan and lead the special operations in the north.

Before those northern operations could occur, the 4th ID and their equipment would need to disembark at Turkish ports on the Mediterranean Sea, move overland to link up with additional equipment that had been pre-positioned in Turkey, and then enter the Kurdish Autonomous Zone (KAZ) in northern Iraq. The dilemma, though, was Turkey’s internal political situation. Although Turkey was a reliable NATO ally and very interested in removing Saddam Hussein’s destabilizing influence from the region, they feared that Kurdish participation in OIF might embolden the Kurds to renew their claims for an independent Kurdistan. The Turks’ quandary was how to join and support the coalition without causing domestic political problems.

The 10th SFG(A) was chosen to be the nucleus of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (CJSOTF-N) because (1) they were apportioned to USEUCOM and Turkey was a member of NATO and (2) 10th SFG had established relationships with the Kurds after almost 10 years of participation in Operations PROVIDE COMFORT and NORTHERN WATCH. Similarly, the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG), commanded by Col O.G. Mannon, was designated as Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-North (JSOAD-N). After more than three decades of working together during training, exercises, and contingency operations, the 10th SFG(A) and the 352nd SOG had developed a solid partnership based on mutual trust and operational success.

The original plan for CJSOTF-N, nicknamed Task Force-Viking, was to establish a special operations base in Turkey from which to launch missions into the KAZ, establish forward operating bases (FOBs) in Iraq, and then link up with the two rival Kurdish factions. One battalion of the 10th SFG would partner with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the northern half of the KAZ and the other with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the southern sector. It was a classic unconventional warfare operation – US special operations support to indigenous resistance movements supported by airpower.

7 SOS patch

Execution of the initial plan began with Col Mannon deploying to Turkey early with a team to begin the negotiations and encampment. Almost a year earlier, the Turkish government had fully intended to cooperate with potential coalition operations, at least by offering basing and overflight rights. But by New Year’s Day, Turkey’s internal politics had changed. Feeling intense domestic pressure, the Turks let it be known that they were unlikely to allow coalition operations from Turkey. They also cautioned that even if they did approve the use of their ports, roads, and bases, it would unlikely be soon enough to permit the timing needed for proper coalition force staging and preparation. Leaning forward, Special Operations Command Europe, TF-Viking and JSOAD-N began looking for alternatives. With USEUCOM’s help, Romania offered the use of Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) AB, near Constanta on the Black Sea. A team of 30 airmen from the 352nd SOG, led by Lt Col Timothy Brown and dubbed the “Dirty-Thirty” due to the conditions of the base upon arrival, arrived at MK on St Valentine’s Day to prepare the base for future US operations, gambling that diplomatic negotiations would enable TF-Viking to infiltrate from MK by overflying Turkey. In late February, aircraft from the 352nd SOG: MC-130H Combat Talon IIs, MC-130P Combat Shadows, and MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, AC-130 gunships from the 1st SOW, plus Special Tactics teams, support units, and equipment deployed to disused conscript barracks and an off-season Black Sea hotel near MK. Unfortunately, on 1 March the Turkish Parliament voted to refuse staging from Turkey, transit through its territory, and overflight of Turkish airspace. The plan for OIF’s northern assault had to change.

The Turks’ refusal meant the 4th ID had to reposition from where it was waiting offshore outside the Turkish ports, through the Suez Canal, to Kuwait where it would eventually join V Corps in the assault from the south. The job of holding those northern Iraqi divisions in place now fell to solely Col Cleveland and the soldiers and airmen of TF-Viking. On 3 March 10th SFG deployed to MK, linking up with the Dirty-Thirty and aircraft from JSOAD-N.

USCENTCOM and TF-Viking planners were left scrambling to develop a new plan for the northern front of the war. The resulting “Plan B” called for the Kurdish Peshmerga, backed by US Special Forces (SF) and coalition airpower to keep the Iraqi divisions from moving south to Baghdad and opposing the southern assault until the coalition main effort could fight its way north from Kuwait. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, elements of the 10th Mountain Division and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit would later be added to TF-Viking, to increase the CJSOTF’s combat power.

On 20 March, Turkey’s parliament finally voted to allow the coalition to transit Turkish airspace for military operations in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Turkish military refused to comply. For two nights three-ship flights of MC-130Hs from the 7th Special Operations Squadron, commanded by Lt Col Mark “Mo” Alsid, launched from MK to deliver Special Forces teams to their destinations in northern Iraq. On both nights, the Combat Talons were intercepted by Turkish F-16s and told to return to base by Turkish air traffic controllers. The Turkish military was denying use of their airspace until the US agreed to allow Turkish forces into the KAZ, a condition that was completely unacceptable to both the US and the Kurdish leadership.

Meanwhile, a separate crew commanded by Maj Mark “Buck” Haberichter, was isolated from the current operations planners and tasked to develop an alternative route to get the CJSOTF into northern Iraq. The concept of operation they were given to work with was to find a circuitous route that would travel from Romania to Jordan where the force would rest overnight and the next day fly a 5-hour, night, low-level penetration of Iraqi airspace, and return along the same route. This alternate routing would take the Combat Talons through some very heavily defended airspace, not so affectionately nicknamed “Happy Valley” by Northern Watch intelligence professionals. The new routing required precise navigation just inside the Iraqi border, staying north and west of Mosul, all the while avoiding Iraqi air defenses and possible compromise by Syrian and Turkish air traffic controllers. The proposed routing added hundreds of miles to the flight route which in turn reduced the load sizes the Combat Talons could carry due to increased fuel requirements. The number of aircraft needed for the initial infiltration grew, from three airplanes to six, one of which was flown by Maj Rich Dyer’s crew from the 15th SOS. As this option was being briefed at the CJSOTF a member of Col Cleveland’s staff muttered under his breath, “That’s one ugly baby.” The name stuck and the mission has become known by this unconventional moniker.

It then became the responsibility of Col Frank J. Kisner, the commander of the Combined/Joint Special Operations Air Component (CJSOAC) to convince Maj Gen Gary Harrell, the SOCCENT commander, of the validity of the plan. As Lt Gen Kisner now tells the story,

All airpower, with the exception of SOF, was restricted from low-level operations over Iraq, and he (Harrell) knew when he took the plan forward that a low-level infiltration, from south-to-north, transiting the entire length of the western border of Iraq, would raise some questions. I reviewed the facts with him—most of which we had already been discussing: it was critical to USCENTCOM’s campaign plan to get Col Charlie Cleveland’s 10th Special Forces Group into the north to hold down the Iraqi divisions that would otherwise reinforce Baghdad; a northern infiltration was politically denied; no other air platforms were available to infiltrate 10th Group; the amount of time it would have taken the heavily laden MC-130s to climb to altitude once they started to burn off gas along their route would have left them vulnerable to small arms and anti-aircraft fire for too great a time; therefore the only reasonable, albeit high-risk option was to have the force package execute the entire infiltration at low level. Was it an audacious plan? Yes, but the crews and SOF air leadership had conducted detailed and intensive planning to reduce the risk as much as possible, and it was the only option available. I closed by recommending his approval of the infiltration plan.

Ugly Baby Route

The new plan was for three Combat Talons to carry elements of 2nd Battalion, 10th SFG (2/10 SFG) to Bashur LZ and the three additional Talons to transport elements of the 3rd Battalion (3/10 SFG) led by Lt Col Ken Tovo along the same route to As Sulaymaniyah LZ. A small advance force had been infiltrated by ground earlier and Air Force Special Tactics airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron would set up infrared landing markings for the Talons at both locations. Almost 300 Green Berets would be inserted into northern Iraq by the six MC-130Hs taking off at pre-determined intervals and proceeding to each of the two LZs and landing with 20-minute spacing throughout the middle of the night.

As word of the approved mission was disseminated the SF teams and our loadmasters set to work adjusting load plans to accommodate new weight limitations. The SF teams were divided into split teams and redistributed among aircraft in case one of the Talons might be lost. All non-essential equipment was removed from the aircraft and the mission-equipment was planned to be floor loaded with the soldiers using snap-link harnesses to attach themselves, via their belts, directly to the floor of the aircraft. The teams packed heavy not knowing what they would encounter—each operator’s rucksack averaged just under 200 pounds. The weights were carefully calculated as every spare pound equaled another pound of fuel that could be added. This careful planning and prudent cross-loading proved prescient—there was minimal impact to the mission when one of the MC-130Hs took heavy ground fire and had to divert from its planned objective.

According to Capt Joe Gelineau, Assistant S-3 for 2/10 SFG, “The fact that the mission was going was a total relief. For two weeks we had been trying to get into Northern Iraq to link-up with our Kurdish counterparts but had been literally turned back at every attempt. Any approved route, even if it was called “ugly baby,” was very much welcomed. We just wanted to get into country and start our mission, regardless of how we go there.” Another huge consideration for the crews was fuel–we had to carry enough to make it in and out without a stop. The plan for exfiltration, after the Talons were light from offload, would be to fly to the maximum altitude possible and retrace our steps back out hoping that many of the air defense systems would not be able to reach us. Lastly, we would rely on the robust electronic countermeasures of the Combat Talons to protect us from any other threats.

On 21 March, four heavily loaded MC-130Hs from the 7th SOS departed MK to join up with two MC-130Hs and one crew from the 15th SOS at King Faisal AB, Jordan, the forward staging base. Two MC-130Ps and a conventional C-130 followed, bringing additional loads and the extra 7th SOS Talon crew since this was not yet a “wartime” mission and the max weights were not yet allowed. After landing, all crews immediately began mission planning activities lasting well into the morning as coordination now had to take place between two squadrons who had not flown together in years. The 15th SOS crew did not have the benefit of the prior day’s planning and, thus, they were playing catch-up through most of the night.

As the sun rose all of the crews completed their planning and attempted to rest in the “transient-personnel” tents during the noise and heat of the day, but were woken only hours later with the notification that the alert time had moved up and the mission was “On.” They grabbed their gear, tweaked their plans for updated weather and intel and proceeded to their aircraft. Proving the age-old aircrew adage that “no plan survives engine start” the SATCOM system on the lead aircraft malfunctioned. This aircraft was planned to carry the Airborne Mission Commander, Lt Col Pat Dean, at the time the 7th SOS Director of Operations. Without a functioning SATCOM his ability to communicate with both the formation and headquarters elements would be significantly hampered and, thus, a bump plan was executed to move Col Dean to the #3 bird before the mission was even underway. The aircraft taxied out of parking to the parallel taxiway where the troops were marshalled and performed an engine-running onload of the SF soldiers. Men, gear, and equipment were strapped down and the crews ran final checklists. Within minutes, as the sun began to set, five Combat Talons, call sign “Harley,” flying at wartime maximum allowable gross weight, lifted off in into the darkening skies of the Jordanian evening. The sixth MC-130 with the SATCOM issue now fixed launched shortly thereafter and was able to continue.

According to one of the SF team leaders, the first hour or so of the flight felt about the same as any training mission from their home base at Ft Carson, CO. Things changed, however, when over the eastern desert of Jordan the MC-130 pilots cancelled their flight plans, made their last radio call to the E-3A AWACS, and declared they were “tactical.” All aircraft lights were switched off as part of the Combat Entry Checklist and with all aircrew on night vision goggles (NVGs), each aircraft descended on their terrain-following radar into the pitch black night, preparing to blast across the border with Iraq at 250 feet above the ground at speeds nearing 300 kts.

Flight Route

While years of Operation NORTHERN/SOUTHERN WATCH had given our intelligence personnel fairly detailed information about the location and capabilities of Iraq’s fixed air defense and early warning systems, along with Iraqi air defense fighters, what was unknown was how well manned the border outposts were and the number and extent of mobile AAA and man-portable missile systems (MANPADS). As the Talons approached the Iraqi border, navigators and pilots focused radars, IR detection systems, and their NVG-shrouded eyes outside the aircraft searching for locations with the least build-up of people or defenses. Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs then, now called Combat Systems Officers, CSOs) armed the aircraft self-defense systems and strained over the noise of the cockpit to listen for missile warning and launch indicators. Aboard Harley 37, the EWO, Capt Robert “Opie” Horton, was spiked by an air-to-air radar and “chaffed-off” what he later believed was a US F-15. With only a select few SOF aircraft operating at low altitude the action was probably a good one to let the US pilot know he had not locked up an enemy target.

Rocketing over the Iraqi border at altitudes of 100 ft AGL and maximum speed it seemed we had been successful in not raising alarms. Navigators had easily picked out the border-sentry posts on radar miles out and routes were adjusted so as to take advantage of the gaps. For the first two hours, the six MC-130s passed unnoticed along the eastern Syrian border. This part of Iraq is sparsely settled, but we knew the tough part of the route was yet to come. With the anticipatory excitement past, crews settled into their routines. In the back of the airplanes, the SF teams were sleeping among their loads and tied-down equipment in the blacked-out cabins.

As we passed Anah, Iraq, and then headed north towards Tal Afar, the situation changed. According to Capt Jeremy Kokenes, the lead aircraft’s navigator, he and Maj Eric Elam, the EWO, began to notice horseshoe-shaped returns on their radar similar to our intelligence briefing description of “potential embedded AAA or other enemy fighting vehicles.” After a short conversation they relayed these observations to the rest of the extended-formation via secure radio. Col Dean attributed a portion of the success of the mission to the efficacy of good inflight communications.

Special Forces

While crossing the first belt of Iraqi defenses the first of the MC-130s took the Iraqi defenders by surprise and quickly passed by drawing only sporadic small arms gunfire. The aircrew looking outside with their NVGs could see the Iraqi soldiers clustered around burn-barrels trying to stay warm on the cold desert night. Now, with the first Talon passing by at threat-penetration altitudes just above their heads, the Iraqis were alerted and moving to their guns. TSgt Mark Peters, one of the two loadmasters strapped into the paratroop door scanning for and alerting the pilot for threats from the sides and rear of the plane, saw an Iraqi gunner under camouflage netting run to his AAA piece with a cigarette in his mouth, something that can only be seen from closer than 100 ft on NVGs.

With the following MC-130s in trailing intervals, the Iraqis were waiting but their initial targeting solutions had them aiming too high. The tracers were mostly going over the tops of the aircraft. Aggressive evasive maneuvering by the pilots avoided any serious damage. By the time the following aircraft approached, however, the Iraqis had adjusted and were ready. This time the defenders were able to place effective AAA fire against the next group of Combat Talons.

Aboard the aircraft crewed by the 15th SOS, Capt Todd Fogle, the navigator, recounts having gone through three and a half minutes of continuous AAA from multiple directions and five guys telling the pilot different things: jink-up/don’t jink-up/jink-left/etc. and with the terrain-following system squawking at us, low altitude warnings blaring, and the copilot saying, “They’ve got us,” as he saw tracer fire now coming at them but not moving from its relative position on the window. Fortunately, at that very moment they crossed over the shoreline of the Saddam Dam Lake and all was absolute calm—three and a half minutes of getting shot at, then complete peace. The flight culminated with the crew landing at Bashur and seeing coach-style tour buses ready to pick up the SF teams. It felt pretty strange to go through all that chaos and then cross a line into to what seemed like another world.

“Buck” Haberichter’s aircraft, tail number 89-0280, “The Highlander,” and call sign Harley 37, was the planned tail-end Charlie. We fully expected enemy defenses to be woken up by the time we entered the engagement zone. They opened fire on us with what we later believed to be 57 mm, 23 mm, 14.5 mm, and small arms fire. The initial engagement was from a 57mm proximity-round exploding outside the pilot’s window, which sounded like a pool-ball being thrown at the floor. We all looked at each other and then the engineer verified the pilot’s swing-window had been severely damaged by the explosion. That engagement then continued as we jinked and maneuvered the aircraft for the next four minutes. SSgt Eric Rigby, our flight engineer, reported that our number two engine had been hit and we were rapidly losing engine oil. We began the engine shutdown sequence just as we flew into a second hornet’s nest. AAA was everywhere. We began jinking again, this time on three engines, and maneuvering the plane through all dimensions. Threat calls were coming from all directions and at that moment the TF system failed, leaving us in the moonless night with no radar at 250 feet and under attack. AAA fire began to rip through the fuselage of the airplane and the smell of burning powder was evident in the cargo compartment. “Opie” Horton fought the urge to deploy preventative flares against potential MANPADS knowing they would illuminate us against the pitch back desert. In the back, the SF team leader said his men could hear the shrapnel hitting the aircraft and were just waiting for holes to start opening up in the sides of the airplane. The soldiers sat helplessly as the pilots tried to evade the firestorm and watched as bullets and shrapnel penetrated the cargo compartment.

Capt Gelineau, in the back of Harley 37, remembers hearing and feeling the effects of the enemy air defenses. The enemy gunfire sounded as if someone drove a metal rod into an industrial-sized fan…clack-ity, clack, clack, clack! He remembered seeing debris and insulation scatter inside of our MC-130’s cargo area due to the enemy gunfire. He also remembered seeing the loadmaster’s hand signal that one of the engines was dead and smelling the smoke enter the cargo compartment as the pilot repeatedly descended and ascended in order to maneuver to avoid additional enemy fire. Up front, “Buck” descended to below 100 feet AGL to try and avoid the AAA, but during that engagement a 23 mm round penetrated the skin of the aircraft forward of the right paratroop door narrowly missing the loadmaster, SSgt Dave Buss, scorching insulation, and starting a fire on the honey-bucket curtain. Buss distinctly remembers the wild rollercoaster ride of the flight going from weightlessness to not being able to move because of the 60 pounds of body armor and the survival vest he was wearing. In the opposite door SSgt Ryan “Tico” Pentico called out the dead engine to the pilot while continuing the threat calls. One Special Tactics airman later relayed to me after we landed that he flipped down his NVGs to look out a side window and then flipped them back up, not wanting to see the end which he fully expected due to the massive amounts of tracer fire.

There were a significant number of Javelin missiles and boxes of fragmentation grenades loaded in the center of the aircraft, and the soldiers knew they couldn’t be far enough away from them to be safe. The second engagement lasted almost seven minutes and I remember thinking that our training scenarios never lasted this long. Happily, the only round that struck the floor-loaded cargo went straight into a box of MREs later found squished, but entirely intact in a ham slice (we knew they hated the pork MREs). Harley 37 was hit 19 times before we got past the high-threat zone. We were badly leaking fuel and had lost the #2 engine in addition to the damage to the pilot’s side window.

By that point each of the still heavy airplane’s engines had been over-temped and over-torqued, and the entire plane had been over-G’ed with the massive load of fuel, people, equipment, and munitions we were carrying. After some quick calculations and assessment of the battle damage, we realized we could not make it to Bashur, deliver the teams, and have enough fuel to return to King Faisal AB. Knowing that leaving an aircraft on the LZ would have disrupted the entire battle plan, Buck made the hard decision to abort the infiltration and divert. Despite the Turks’ prohibition against flying through their airspace and using their bases, the best option available was to declare an emergency and head to Incirlik AB where we knew there were American maintenance and support facilities and where the 7th SOS had staged out of for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM just two years earlier.

We made an immediate left turn to the north and began to climb to clear the mountains which separate the two countries without the luxury of a terrain avoidance radar. The copilot, 1st Lt Jon Cotton, declared an emergency and was contacted by the NATO AWACS crew, callsign Magic, which was flying just north of the Iraqi border to monitor the situation. A Turkish F-16 locked us up for an intercept, but Magic directed them away as we were an aircraft in distress. The F-16 “offered” to escort us to Incirlik but our Talon’s ALQ-172 jammers were wreaking havoc on the fighter’s radars and he quickly peeled off. Buck quoting from the movie Airplane, “Have you ever spent the night in a Turkish prison,” didn’t help defuse the mood. Magic relayed our position and status to Turkish controllers who allowed us to pass.

Harley 37 post mission
pilot window

With the next two-hours spent gingerly dodging thunderstorms and doing triage of the damage, we finally began our descent into Incirlik AB. Buck made an incredibly smooth landing. During the ground roll the loadmasters reported fuel cascading from the wings. The pilot carefully applied the aircraft brakes and avoided reverse thrust per the engineer’s direction and thus preventing fuel spray forward of three engines which could have ignited and destroyed the whole plane. Once we came to a stop Buck called for an emergency shut-down of the engines and evacuation of the aircraft. For the SF soldiers who thought the excitement was over, the adrenaline spiked again. All of the crewmembers and SF teams sprinted from the aircraft onto the grassy infield to avoid the rapidly responding fire rescue vehicles which foamed the entire area and put out barriers to collect the thousands of pounds of fuel still spilling from the wings. Our Incirlik AB hosts took us and the soldiers to a reception area and less than 24 hours later we were on a C-17 back to MK via Ramstein.

Aboard what was now the last aircraft, Maj George Thiebes, the C/3/10 SFG(A) commander, sat with his troopers in the dimly lit cargo compartment. In the midst of the engagement he looked over at his supply sergeant whose eyes looked like giant saucers. At one point, Thiebes glanced at the Air Force Direct Support Operator (DSO) monitoring friendly and enemy communications from his suite in the cargo compartment, who looked up and shrugged. Thiebes climbed over the equipment to get near the DSO and asked what was up. He replied the plane had just run out of chaff and flares. Great! After many more gut-wrenching moments Thiebes’ aircraft landed at As Sulaymaniyah and his team carefully slipped down the vomit-slickened ramp before a Kurdish Peshmerga hoard stormed the plane to assist with the offload. In a matter of minutes, the plane was empty, but accountability and redistribution took hours to sort out because of the “help.”

After landing at Bashur, the lead MC-130’s crew, assessed the ingress route, threats encountered and reported, and then discussed whether to fly an alternative low-level route home, or to fly at max altitude to avoid the now, definite small arms and AAA threat. While the 10 SFG(A) Command team, including Col Cleveland offloaded, the flight engineer calculated fuel, weight and balance, and determined that the five Combat Talons could step climb to be high enough to avoid the AAA and MANPADS threats, but it would put the aircraft in range of more capable surface-to-air-missiles. The decision was made to fly at altitude and let the EWOs and their defensive systems do their job. Each aircraft began a spiral climb to altitude over the landing zones and then continued along the return flight home. The view from these altitudes, some as high as 30,000 ft, highlighted the ongoing airstrikes on Mosul, Baghdad, and other key cities where coalition forces were smashing key targets.

As the crews crossed back into Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Combat Exit checklists were run and there were many sighs of relief and thoughts of gratitude. On a more comical note, many 7th SOS crews had never seen King Faisal Air Base at night and were somewhat unfamiliar with the taxiways, especially in poor lighting, with poor markings and on NVGs. It may or may not be true that one MC-130 that night shared a “road” with another American serviceman in a vehicle who was wondering if that was an actual C-130 he was nose-to-nose with.

That night, JSOAD-N successfully inserted 19 SF teams and 4 SF company headquarters at Bashur and As Sulaymaniyah. More importantly, though, the bold decision to take the high risk, circuitous flight caused Turkey to rethink its position on overflight of their territory. When the Turkish General Staff heard that one of the Combat Talons had almost been shot down with 37 souls onboard because of their obstinacy, they relented. This fact is often lost in the tactical retelling of the mission. On 23 March, the Turks allowed coalition aircraft to use Turkish airspace and non-combat sorties were permitted to launch from Turkish bases. The air bridge from Europe to Iraq was open and JSOAD-N landed additional missions the same night to begin the flow of replacements and supplies to the northern front.

The Highlander by Rory Dorling

Epilogue

Following the successful infiltration of over 300 SF operators and many more support personnel, the expanded task force, along with their Kurdish partners, successfully held the 13 Iraqi divisions in-place on the northern front. The combination of coalition airpower and unconventional boots on the ground proved a powerful tool in the friendly arsenal.

For the Air Commandos, they continued to fly and fight for the duration of OIF. Harley 37, tail #0280, was grounded for a couple of weeks while she underwent battle-damage repair and was eventually returned to service.

The 22 March 2003 Ugly Baby mission is likely one of the most decorated in AF history. Arguably, the mission was the longest low-level, combat infiltration by US special operations aircraft since the Second World War. In recognition of the exceptional airmanship, bravery, and professional courage displayed during the mission, the Harley flight crews were awarded a total of 32 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals. The 7th SOS also received a Gallant Unit Citation for their actions during OIF and the Secretary of the Army awarded the squadron the Bronze Arrowhead device to the OIF Campaign Medal for conducting the combat assault.


About the Author: Col Cory Peterson was the navigator on Harley 37. He retired after more than 26 years of service, having flown both conventional and special operations C-130s. He was part of the joint SOF faculty at the US Army Command & General Staff College and the international SOF faculty at the NATO Special Operations School. Col Peterson’s final assignment was as the plank-holding Chief of Staff at Special Operations Command North. He remains honored to have served with the 7th SOS, “The Finest Flying Squadron in the US Air Force.”

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2nd Special Operations Squadron

2nd Special Operations Squadron

Citizen Air Commandos with a 24/7/365 Mission

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1, July 2019, Page 37-39

By Maj Amanda Reeves, 919th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

From a non-descript building on Hurlburt Field, FL, a group of Air Force Reserve Citizen Air Commandos carry out a unique 24/7 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission for Air Force Special Operations Command. As part of the Air Force Reserve’s only special operations wing, the 2nd Special Operations Squadron (SOS) operates the MQ-9 Reaper in support of warfighters across the globe. Executing a unique mission for the Reserves, the 2nd SOS has overcome great obstacles and proven itself to be a lethal force on the battlefield.

2nd SOS patch

Boasting a unit legacy and heritage dating back to 1917, the 2nd SOS has provided ISR to commanders and warfighters since World War I. Then, they were the US Army’s 2nd Balloon Squadron, using observation balloons over the battlefields of France to help commanders on the ground identify enemy composition, positions, and movements. Although the unit has been de- and re-activated several times in the last century, since March 2009, the 2nd SOS has delivered consistent, timely, and accurate ISR support and capabilities to the greater special operations enterprise.

In its current form, the 2nd SOS was initially activated to operate the MQ-1B Predator at Nellis AFB, NV. Five years later, in 2014, the unit was hit with two major changes simultaneously: changing platforms to operate the MQ-9, and moving to Hurlburt Field, FL. “We didn’t miss a single day of operations,” said a 2nd SOS senior intelligence officer. “What’s even better is the majority of our people chose to move with us as well. That’s rare in the Reserves.”

Indeed, most things about the 2nd SOS are rare in both the Reserves and the Air Force in general. Many traditional AF Reserve units are hindered by restraints on their manning and resources – it is often difficult to support a non-stop mission with people who are only present a total of one month per year. The 2nd SOS, however, has been blessed with a cadre of people who are dedicated to their mission and consistently go above and beyond the minimum requirements.

A technical sergeant assigned to the 2nd SOS conducts training in the RPA simulator at Hurlburt Field, FL. (Photo courtesy of 919th SOW/PA)

“Being a part of AFSOC, we’re on the leading edge of the weapon systems coming out,” said the 2nd SOS superintendent, a senior enlisted member assigned to the unit. “We’re always using the newest software and executing the newest capabilities. This requires constant training, and most of our traditional Reservists are working 120 plus days per year.”

As an AF Reserve unit, the 2nd SOS has been able to take advantage of the diversity of its Citizen Air Commandos by tapping into their varied experiences.
“Our diversity makes stronger,” said Lt Col Brian Diehl, 2nd SOS commander. “It provides strategic depth, and more importantly, it makes us lethal. The mighty 2nd SOS is stitched together with seasoned Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, National Guard, and Regular Air Force veterans. We have seen it, we have done it, and we are ready for more!”

In addition to bringing a wealth of knowledge, the 2nd SOS’s composition allows it another strategic advantage—every member of the unit is a volunteer who wants to be there and is completely dedicated to the mission.
In a recent command climate survey, respondents had a 97 percent job satisfaction level, with a 94 percent commitment rate. Satisfaction levels that high are nearly unheard of in any work environment, let alone in the Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPA enterprise, which has historically been plagued by resiliency issues.

For the mission, this translates to incredible longevity and expertise in the 2nd SOS. On average, the unit’s pilots, sensor operators, and intelligence coordinators each have approximately 3,000 flying hours under their belts. In a recent ceremony, the squadron marked both its tenth anniversary since being re-activated and its achievement of 100,000 flying hours.

Maj Gen Vincent Becklund, the deputy commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, congratulates members of the 2nd SOS, marking both their 10th anniversary since being re-activated and their achievement of 100,000 flying hours. (Photo courtesy of 919th SOW/PA)

Maj Gen Vincent Becklund, the deputy commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, spoke at the ceremony and highlighted the squadron’s contributions to the AFSOC mission. “To be great, a unit needs three critical things: professionalism, technical proficiency, and esprit de corps,” said Becklund. “The 2nd SOS has all three in spades. You truly are a great unit.”

The 2nd SOS works around the clock to support AFSOC’s global operations. Since 2009, it has operated in every named operation in which the US has been engaged, encompassing six different areas of operation (AOR). The resulting intelligence from thousands of different targets assisted in countless raids and detentions, while also neutralizing numerous high-value individuals wishing to do the US harm.

“You are a critical part of our team,” said Gen Becklund. “I have never once heard someone say that a mission was so critical that they would rather not have the 2nd SOS handle it.”

As an integral part of the Total Force, the 2nd SOS has also supported its active duty counterparts in untraditional ways. In 2017, when its sister unit, the active duty 65th Special Operations Squadron, underwent its own move, the 2nd SOS mobilized to support the move to ensure operations did not stop. Once the move was complete, the 2nd SOS continued to provide intelligence support for nearly a full year. Additionally, the 2nd SOS runs the operations center for both the Reserve and active duty components at Hurlburt Field. Since they opened in 2014, they have never closed their doors and have maintained steady-state, 24/7/365 operations. “This unit works so seamlessly with the active duty component that I would never know you were a Reserve unit if you didn’t tell me — you’re that good,” said Gen Becklund.

That professionalism and expertise is a direct result of each member’s dedication to the mission. The squadron is comprised of a mix of full-time Active Guard Reserve positions and traditional Reservist positions. Significant system upgrades occurring every six months and the mix of full-time and part-time schedules require true personal commitment to stay proficient.

“Our traditional Reservist crew members come in, and with minimal spin-up are ready to fly any mission in any AOR,” said a senior master sergeant assigned to the unit. “It might be a new system, it might be a new AOR. It’s a really unique and challenging situation for us, but our people thrive.”

In October 2018, the 2nd SOS demonstrated just how good they are when they faced a Category 5 hurricane head-on. Projected to make landfall just 80 miles east of Hurlburt Field, Hurricane Michael was the first Cat 5 to hit Florida since 1992. The storm’s rapid change in intensity forced the 2nd SOS to act quickly, informing numerous global players of the situation, ensuring troops on the ground had the critical air support they required thousands of miles away, and keeping local crews safe from the storm’s path in Florida.

The 2nd SOS operations center remained operational throughout the storm to coordinate aircrews and missions and to maintain personnel accountability. For safety, they moved to minimum manning, and for about 48 hours, the operations center was manned by the unit’s commander, senior intelligence officer, flight operations supervisor, and senior mission intelligence coordinator.

The hurricane ride-out crews served as a hub of communication between several interested wings, squadron members and their families, and the deployed controlling agencies. In addition to command and control duties, the ride-out crew also ensured generators and air handlers operated at full capacity in order to protect the irreplaceable computer servers and equipment required to operate aircraft halfway around the world. The squadron’s leadership carefully monitored the storm’s path, weighing the decision of whether or not to evacuate. This was as close as the 2nd SOS had come to ceasing operations since it relocated to Hurlburt Field in 2014. Once the hurricane’s path shifted slightly to the east and the squadron had 100 percent accountability, the operations center returned their focus to their normal operations, recalling aircrew and flying combat missions again.

The 24/7/365 no-fail mission of the 2nd SOS persisted, despite the threat from an unpredictable hurricane, because its people believed in it and committed to uphold it. The unit’s members make those same decisions day-in and day-out, providing continuous, superior support to the nation’s warfighters on the ground.

To ensure the fast pace doesn’t take a toll on its people, the 2nd SOS works closely with its wing’s Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) representatives. They hold monthly family events for the members and take resiliency seriously from the moment each member is gained to the unit.

We address the nature of our mission in our initial interviews,” said Diehl. “Everyone who comes here knows what to expect and has decided this is what they want to do. I think that, combined with the exceptional support we receive from POTFF, is why we have such a high job satisfaction rate.”

Looking to the future, the 2nd SOS has no intention of slowing down and is eager to meet its next milestones. “Make no mistake: while looking forward, we will remain fully engaged in our current fights,” said Diehl. “We will leverage all of our experience to lead our community, not only in restoring our near peer proficiency, but in expanding the envelope of capability.”


About the Author: Maj Amanda Reeves is an Air Force Reserve public affairs officer augmenting the 919th Special Operations Wing. Prior to her role in the Reserve, she spent nine years active duty with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and had several opportunities to support the Special Operations community in AORs across the globe.

Editor’s Note: Last names of 2nd SOS personnel are withheld for security reasons.

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