A combat commander's lessons learned

  • Published
  • By Maj. Todd Bean
  • 374th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander
My Air Expeditionary Force deployment to Bagram, Afghanistan was one of the most significant events in my Air Force career.

Not only was it significant to have the opportunity to command in combat, but also due to the circumstances, unit dynamics and environment of this combat command.

The lessons learned included patience, character and compassion.

Just to put everything into perspective, Bagram is in an austere location of Afghanistan surrounded by mountains. The base is managed by the Army, but the Air Force runs the airfield.

During this deployment, the base experienced a suicide bombing, mortar attack, rocket attack, earthquake and endured a four day snow and ice storm.

However, we also survived a freak 14-day massive bird migration which resulted in numerous aircraft bird strikes, one Class A mishap and ultimately shut down the runway and airfield for pockets of time daily.

Command should be the goal of every officer. But combat command is a rare opportunity that will test every aspect of your skills, training, character and leadership abilities.

My previous five deployments have always been with home station units.

We trained together, received headquarters inspections together and deployed together.

However, this deployment was different.

As the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, I assumed command of three Aircraft Maintenance Units.

The A-10 AMU, deployed from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., who struggled but passed their Operational Readiness Inspection prior to deployment. The F-15 AMU, deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, experienced a unit fatality just prior to departure. And finally, the C-130 AMU was a rainbow Air National Guard unit from Illinois, North Carolina and Minnesota. Their aircraft maintainers were seasoned and experienced technicians; a few senior noncommissioned officers had deployed during the Vietnam conflict.

The A-10 AMU taught me patience.

When a unit struggles to pass a headquarters inspection, they can either bounce back and correct their flawed training and broken processes or continue the death spiral of despair.

As we standardized combat sortie generation procedures, we quickly realized the challenges with which the unit was faced before deploying, but they were hard working, smart and proud Airmen ready to service and execute this Global War on Terrorism.

Through communication, clear guidance, consistent leadership and patience we overcame their pre-deployment obstacles. Teaching an organization how to overcome adversity was essential, but patience was the key.

The patience allowed me to temper my leadership style and fit the organization's needs as the A-10 AMU corrected broken processes and some bad habits. That unit taught us never to judge a book by its cover.

Twenty-four hours after landing in Afghanistan, the A-10 AMU was flying sorties, dropping bombs and gunning down enemy targets.

The Army raved about their close-air support and we had an additional aviation weapon to deliver destruction and fear against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

The Airmen of the A-10 AMU executed daily sorties with ease and positive attitudes. It seemed as if this deployment was a relief from the daily training sorties, inspections and last minute aircraft modifications they left at Davis-Monthan.

The F-15 AMU helped me learn the details of a new weapon system and our high-tech aviation fleet while building character of Airmen.

The F-15 E Strike Eagle aircraft deployed with a new suite five modifications, sniper targeting pods and the Bomb Rack Unit 61/Small Diameter Bomb.

This weapon could track any enemy target via real-time, wait for the target to leave the mosque and enter an outhouse nearly a few yards away, drop a bomb on the outhouse and eliminate the target without damage to even a window in the mosque.

The average age of an F-15 AMU Airman was 21 and much of the troubleshooting for aircraft discrepancies was driven by mission computer fault codes and laptops, which ultimately guided the technician to the failed component.

Leading these gifted, smart, impressionable Airmen through their first combat deployment was awesome. Watching those really young Airmen mature in combat over 120 days was rewarding and memorable.

I often reflect on our first base attack and remember looking into their eyes, seeing the fear, and knowing how important my words were to them. During our post attack procedures, commanders are responsible for personnel accountability and reporting damage. The first three hours after an attack was critical for command and control. Commanders would brief their units on what happened, effected sectors of the base or airfield, and then re-focus the unit on their aspect of the mission. Forty-five days between our first base attack and the next, the look of fear was replaced with courage.

When I addressed those airmen during the post-attack procedures, all they wanted to know was when can we get out of these bunkers and launch more aircraft. We were developing the character of these young men and women and our next generation of warriors and national heroes.

The C-130 AMU allowed me to truly understand the close bond and compassion between all the men and women in the Guard, which is very different from the relationships on active duty.

Working for an ANG group commander and operations squadron commanders, allowed me to experience the close working relationship between maintenance and operators in the ANG.

One evening I asked my operations squadron commander counterpart why he cared so much about the maintainer's personal comforts and not just the aircraft status. He replied that that in the Guard, many of the people went to the same high school and college. Additionally, many people went to the same church and their spouses work together or children were on the same little league teams.

He said he doesn't just see that maintainer on the flightline during a two to three year base tour, but in many cases, has known him and his family the majority of his life.

This close and unique relationship has definite pros and few cons and reflects the honorable and rich heritage of our Air National Guard Units.

The heroic combat results of the 455 EAMS will be captured in the medals and letters of evaluation as the F-15 Strike Eagles, A-10 Wart Hogs, and C-130 Mighty Herks rotate home.

But the lessons we learned about patience, character and compassion, which allowed us to successfully execute combat missions, will be recorded in the history of our great nation.