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Airmen sharpen combat skills with intense wartime mission training

By Michael Anderson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 7:26 p.m. MDT

Airman 1st Class Jacob Kurtz and the 729th Air Control Squadron practice defending their operating location in an attack scenario exercise as part of combat training at Hill Air Force Base on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Senior Airman Ben Twamley peers out from a desert foxhole, joined by Tech Sgt. Steve Lauer. Twamley's been in the Air Force 2 ½ years and has never been deployed; Lauer has been deployed several times, including twice to Afghanistan.

“Right now, we’re on the edge,” Lauer said. “We don’t know what’s going on. If we see what’s going on, we relay it. We’ll let those guys in the command post make decisions and we go from there.”

The two are among the 45 members of the 729th Air Control Squadron who are engaged in wartime mission training on a simulated base. It may be the closest thing to real combat the airmen will experience to keep their skills sharp for actual deployment.

The group has set up an elaborate mobile base inside the far north end of Hill Force Base. They're alone for a week on a nearly 50-acre lot. They say anything can happen at any time.

“(We) make sure no one gets in and steals intel, make sure that everyone on the inside stays safe,” Twamley said.

Out here, the firefights come without warning.

“You fight like you train, and there are a lot of skills that we can only exercise out in the field,” Lt. Col. Darin Humiston, 729th ACS commander, said.

They are practicing packing up equipment, such as radar with a 240-mile range, getting out to remote sites, setting up a site with power and networks, and defending themselves against attackers.

The exercise began with members of the local security forces squadron at Hill Air Force Base instructing the squadron on how to defend the site.

“Then we spend three days of them attacking us at times and places we were not expecting, and they basically put us to the test,” Humiston said. “They stress our airmen, and we become that much better defenders so that we are ready to drive out and defend ourselves in the real world.”

The bullets aren’t real, and the stress of real combat is difficult to replicate.

“The nerves is totally different,” Lauer said. “Here you know nothing’s real coming at you. Down there, it’s a different story.” But the training helps them know how to react.

“There’s obviously adrenaline rush, but it’s nothing like extreme, I’d say. When taking actual fire, and actually firing live rounds, it’s a lot different,” Twamley said.

The squadron is made up of 13 specialties and functions like a real small base. They provide surveillance for the Air Force. They are practicing with 20 vehicles. Thursday, a forward radio and radar package was training.

“They drive up close to the frontline, and these are the eyes and ears over a broad front in a region. So we take that information, we send it up to a satellite that’s beamed back to a main base and then I’ve got great controllers that do a great job identifying all the airplanes flying and then we talk to the fighters and make sure we keep everybody safe and make sure there are no surprises out there.”

The 729th Air Control Squadron is one of three active duty units worldwide. The squadron has been continuously deploying in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom since 2003.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com

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