Joint Base San Antonio-Medina Annex, Texas --
A combined team of Communications Airmen deployed to Homestead Air Reserve Base June 5-15 to participate in a multi-unit training exercise.
Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 35th Combat Communications Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., 914th Communications Squadron at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, New York, and 960th Network Warfare Flight at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., came together with the 482nd Communications Squadron to test their capabilities.
On day one, the group set about unpacking their equipment, fueling up their generators, attaching HVAC [heating, ventilation and cooling] units to their tents, and bringing command and control capabilities to bear. Over the next several days, they demonstrated their ability to execute their mission to establish and extend [unclassified communication network] and [telephone] services after a simulated hurricane event, and enable Department of Defense Information Network information protection and monitoring, while also providing on-demand tactical communications training for other Air Force Reserve Command units that traditionally do not have a mobility mission.
The team of more than 40 Citizen Airmen were challenged in a variety of ways during the nine-day exercise.
"As we like to say in Combat Comm: 'If it ain't rainin', we ain't trainin'!'", said Maj. Timothy Spink, 35th CBCS director of operations. "Early [in the morning on day 2], our night shift had over five inches of rain dumped in a one-hour period, nearly flooding our tents out. Mission failure was prevented, however, due to the prior planning on the part of our NCO's who ensured all of our gear was raised off of the ground."
Despite the rain, the very inexperienced crew had all DODIN services up and connected within 20 hours, where the Air Force Space Command Instruction timeline is 24 hours.
This was the first exercise for Senior Airman Karrar Khudhair, a cyber transport systems journeyman assigned to the 35th CBCS, and he says he learned a lot from the experience, particularly with regards to programming routers and switches.
“This was the first time I was able to practically use a lot of the training I had picked up in tech school, and it was also the first time I was able to see our mission’s end-to-end process outside of briefings,” Khudhair said. “I did everything from set up the site, conduct inventories, establish services, conduct PMIs and PDIs, and then pack it up again. I was glad to see how my part provided network services for others and grateful to be part of a team in which everyone knew the mission, the part they played, and were helpful to each other in seeing the mission accomplished.”
Khudhair, who came to the United States after serving the Army as a translator/interpreter in Baghdad, shared the one accomplishment that he’s most proud of from this exercise.
“Setting up our Radio Frequency modules to prove that we could extend services beyond our initial tent is the one thing I’m most proud of from this experience,” Khudhair. “I had never touched this equipment before, but with a little coaching at first, I was able to figure out how to not only program that gear, but how to also set up our tactical VoIP systems as well. I definitely felt empowered with this team!”
While the training exercise was a first for Khudhair and proved to be a valuable learning experience for him, the benefit of the training was not lost for the more experienced members of the team.
Senior Airman William Bolles, a radio frequency transmissions journeyman who is also assigned to the 35th CBCS, has participated in two other exercises like this one, but says he still learned a lot.
“Being able to train the Niagara personnel on the PRC-117 and PRC-152 tactical radios is one of the things I enjoyed the most,” Bolles said. “This was the first time I had lead on a training plan, and it was exciting to see Airmen who had never touched the gear before become extremely competent based on the instruction I facilitated for them.”
According to Spink, despite the weather, the early successes served to motivate the team, and as the exercise moved along, the new saying became "practice makes perfect".
“We tore down and set up portions of our gear multiple times to gain experience in bringing services online,” Spink said. “We established our satellite communications area link early, so we spent time exercising the competency of the combined SATCOM team from all the units in acquiring the satellite, locking the signal, connecting into the DODIN, and establishing maintenance patterns with our distant end. The whole process takes a couple of hours, and we ensured the team did it several times.”
Spink went on to say despite tropical storms and bed bug infestations, the team was able to maintain DODIN connectivity, complete hands-on training sessions, and hone their skills on various aspects of the mission to include fiber optic termination and SATCOM link restoration/troubleshooting. Additionally, during this exercise, members of the 960th NWF developed, codified, and ops-checked the configuration standard operation procedures for their deployable information security suite, which was an Air Force first.
With some excellent training completed, the group celebrated one last success on June 15th, when they repacked their gear, reassembled their pallets, and forked everything over to the cargo deployment facility in preparation for the Joint Airworthiness Inspection, with Bolles at the helm as the hazardous material manager.
“There was lots of paperwork to get our pallets ready to be airlifted to and from Homestead,” said Bolles, who attended a hazardous cargo class just before the exercise, but says he saw the greatest benefit from on-the-job learning that happened. “In addition to the successful radio classes I facilitated, my HAZMAT paperwork allowed our Joint Inspection to wrap up in only 20 minutes! They poured over my paperwork and everything was in order, and I’m really proud of that.”
Spink shared in the excitement of this accomplishment.
"This was the fastest turn JI that I've ever experienced in my eight years as a combat communicator – a testament to the hard work and dedication of the combined 35th CBCS, 482nd CS, 914th CS, and the 960th NWF personnel who built the pallets [that day]", said Spink. "Usually, JI's last several hours as the host wing's Cargo Deployment Function meticulously inspect and flag anything out of compliance, often forcing a pallet to be rebuilt, but the 35th CBCS members who verified all hazards, paperwork, weights, and construction elements, ensured the JI lasted no more than 25 minutes start-to-finish...an incredible feat!"
The success of this team was celebrated back at the unit, as the commander praised them for their efforts.
“Despite multiple environmental challenges, our unit met all mission objectives set for this hurricane recovery exercise,” said Lt. Col. Monte Buchanan, 35th CBCS commander. “First, our ability to establish and extended the DODIN in an austere location with an untried team was impressive enough…but we did it in only 20 hours, beating AFSPCI timelines by four hours! This speaks both to the unit’s training program and the strength of our NCO corps.”
Buchanan went on to say the team gained valuable experience in the many unexpected trials of setting up communications in South Florida, including site grounding, tropical heat, limited amount of daylight, and torrential downpours, as this exercise took place during the wettest week in June the area had experienced in 26 years.
He added that this group of Citizen Airmen proved that combat communications can provide a viable option to recover from class 4 and 5 hurricanes even if there is no C4 infrastructure remaining at Homestead ARB, and said the unit will continue to work with the Air Force Reserve Command Communications Directorate and the leadership of 482nd CS to operationalize a full hurricane recovery concept of operations using the lessons learned from using deployable communications packages.
“I am proud of our unit’s accomplishments in such a short period of time,” Buchanan said. “And this training solidifies the 35th CBCS’s commitment and capabilities in the face of any challenge, whether in war or at peace – ‘Bring it On, Hooah!’”