Combat Control School

Combat Controllers are the Air Force's version of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and the Marines' Force Reconnaissance - a small but elite special operations force whose mission puts them in a hostile environment where lives depend on their training and each other.

"Our basic job is combat airfield operations," said Senior Master Sgt. Jack McMullen, commandant of the Combat Control School. "We establish landing zones and drop zones to bring in airborne and airland forces."

But McMullen's understated explanation does not convey the rigors or perils that are their daily bread. The combat controllers' motto is "First There." Like Navy SEALs, they arrive with stealth, via sea, air or land. Their destination is usually a hostile, and often enemy-held, area. They infiltrate an airfield or drop zone, clear it of the enemy and obstacles, and provide air traffic control for the arrival of a larger invading force.

"We'll jump in ahead of time, and we have 30 minutes from the time we exit the aircraft to putting the first airplane on the ground," McMullen explained.

Newcomers to the career field endure more than a year of training in combat tactics and survival, scuba and parachute, demolitions and air traffic control. McMullen's schoolhouse is the last stop in that nationwide training tour .  Their, already hardened trainees are made even harder.

Start of a hard day

That hardening starts every day in the predawn darkness. It's still hours before the quiet rite at the headstone, and the trainees - less than a dozen - stand at attention in a square bed of gravel. They are waiting. On silent cue, they break into an a cappella version of the Air Force song. The instructors are arriving. The day's training begins.

The instructors, who nearly outnumber the trainees, put them through an hour of relentless exercise. Though the temperature hovers in the mid-30s, the trainees are soon soaked in sweat. The instructors snake among them, raining a constant barrage of explosive verbal artillery. The instructors also participate in the exercises. They drop for push-ups, getting face to face with a trainee, driving a trainee to push harder.

Later that day, when their hours of training are over, the trainees will return to that gravel bed, called "The Pit." They'll manicure it with the care due a royal flower garden. Like the path leading to the headstone, they're taught to treat it with reverence.

"The students have to weed it and rake it every day. They're not even allowed to spit in it," said instructor Staff Sgt. Scott Nowlin. "The Pit is their sacred ground."

The instructors are hard on the students, to say the least. The language, challenges, stresses and punishments are not for the faint of heart. There is no candy-coating on anything the instructors dish out. But for good reason. In a career field of less than 400 people, the training they give today could save their own lives tomorrow.

"This is a three-year tour for me," said Staff Sgt. Dean Unger, a combat control instructor. "When I'm done here, I'm going to be working with those guys. I have to make them the best product I can."

Only the strong survive

The road that ends at Pope is long, and the attrition rate in the combat control training pipeline is incredible. "We'll get 100 of them in for initial indoctrination training [at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas] and 80 of them will drop out," McMullen said. "More will wash out in scuba school or airborne school. They just can't handle the physical and mental demands of the job. Of those that stay, only half will become combat controllers; the others become para-rescuemen."

That means less than 50 students a year make it to McMullen's class. But once at Pope, the attrition rate is less than 6 percent.

"The chaff has already been separated from the wheat by the time we get them," McMullen said. "And when they fall out here, it's usually because of injuries, so they're recycled, not retrained."

Most of the trainees are young airmen in their early 20s. But the career field also draws a few officers, who stand side-by-side with the airmen and endure the same hardships.

Capt. Tom Stephens was a civil engineer before he volunteered to be a combat controller. After 14 months of training, and just weeks before he graduated from the Pope school, he hustled down a dirt airstrip, his rank - and his face - invisible under layers of mud. He stopped every 500 feet to pound wooden stakes into hard soil, while instructors harangued him for being too slow. Following their morning exercise hell, Stephens and his airmen classmates had hiked about 12 miles in full battle gear to prepare the Fort Bragg airstrip for incoming C-130s full of Army soldiers. But even as he pounded stakes, he said he felt great.

"At times, it's pretty grueling. But it's real rewarding," he panted. "It's a lot better than sitting behind a desk."

Hard thinkers

Stephens' attitude defines what combat controllers are about. The students accept the stresses and instructors' invectives with vigor.

"You get to the point where it doesn't faze you," said one of Stephens' classmates, Airman 1st Class Tobin Berry. "You get desensitized after a year and a half."

Desensitized, but not senseless. The combat control school is not designed to build fearless automatons, but tough troopers who can stay calm and think under the most hostile conditions.

"We want thinking men because it's 90 percent mental," Staff Sgt. Jeff Nagel, a combat control instructor and former Marine who served with their elite Force Recon unit. "We do a lot of physical things, but if a guy can hack it mentally, if he can say, 'I can overcome this,' he's going to make it through. This is a thinking man's job."

To ensure trainees exercise their minds as well as their bodies, instructors grade them on point systems. Every trainee enters the 13-week Pope course with 100 points. He loses points for breaking rules like spitting in The Pit or leaving a weapon beyond arm's reach in the field.

"If they get down to 70 points, they're strongly considered for recycling or even elimination from the program," said instructor Staff Sgt. Paul Durst.

Nagel said the combat-oriented treatment and high standards are necessary because to let them falter now could mean a lapse in thinking or discipline later.

"A lot of people - especially Air Force - don't understand why it appears we're so harsh in training these guys. We have to be," Nagel explained. "You can't baby these guys. In this job, if you stay around long enough, you're going to be under hostile fire. If you babied them, the chances of them surviving a bad situation aren't good. If you train warriors, you're going to get warriors."

McMullen, Nagel's boss, is such a warrior. His graying hair and creased features reflect 22 years of service in nearly every operation involving the U.S. military. He's earned Bronze Stars for valor in both Grenada and Somalia, and suffered the distinction of a Purple Heart in Mogadishu. His experiences are evidence of why combat controllers train so hard. His training helped keep his name off that marble headstone, but it's the Grenadas and Somalias that combat controllers train for.

"It was no different from training - except the live ammunition," McMullen said of Mogadishu. "The hard part was seeing buddies, guys you had known 10 or 15 years, get shot." He pauses for a moment and his features soften. "And die."

Back on the hard path

After a seven-mile march over hills, across streams and even low-crawling through a storm culvert, the trainees stagger back to the school. It's still early morning, and a full day of classes and hardening await. They assemble outside the path to the headstone. Before the instructors file past for their personal communions with the marble, they lead the trainees in a silent set of push-ups.

"We tell them if they only do 10 push-ups right each day, to make sure it's those 10," Durst said.

"It's for all the combat controllers who have made the ultimate sacrifice," said trainee Airman 1st Class Mark Kling.

When they're finished, the students watch the instructors walk the path and touch the names on the stone.

"This is the most important part of the day," Stephens said. "We all want to join the team."

It's a hard road. But they want to walk that path.