Kentucky Air Guard special tactics unit trains in ‘Afghan’ village at Fort Knox

Story by Master Sgt. Phil Speck, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office

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A member of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron defends a vehicle during training at Zussman Range at Fort Knox, Ky., on Nov. 21, 2013. The Airman and his teammates were practicing insertions, extractions and close-quarters combat in a simulated Afghan village. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

FORT KNOX, Ky.  — A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter comes to a hovering stop above a two-story building in the middle of an Afghan village. With blades rotating above, a Kentucky Air National Guard pararescueman scoots to the edge of the chopper’s open door and grabs a thick rope before sliding 25 feet down to the building’s roof. He’s followed by five teammates who quickly secure the rooftop and scan the village for threats.

The scene may sound like a sequence from a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s just another day at the “office” for members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron. They executed the mission in November as part of regular combat training at Fort Knox’s Zussman Urban Training Center.

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Members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron climb a rope ladder onto a Kentucky Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk during training at Zussman Range at Fort Knox, Ky., on Nov. 21, 2013. The Airmen were practicing insertions, extractions and close-quarters combat in a simulated Afghan village. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

The center offers realistic combat environments that simulate what troops can expect to find Afghanistan, according to Staff Sgt. Jeff G., a Kentucky Air Guard pararescueman whose last name is being withheld because of the sensitive nature of his duties.

“This is as good as it gets for training,” he said.

Pararescuemen and their combat controller colleagues from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron are Special Forces Airmen. The former specialize in medical treatment and personnel recovery, while the latter control air traffic and air strikes. Both maintain a high level of training to be prepared for any mission.

The “fast rope insertion” described above is just one of many skills the men trained for in November. They also trained for fast extraction, in which a helicopter hovers overhead and drops a rope ladder for the operatives to climb up.

“We do this training to keep our skills up, stay proficient, so we can seamlessly integrate with other units,” Staff Sgt. G. said.

While at Zussman, the team also conducted close-quarters battle training. The operatives cordoned and searched buildings for people or high-value targets such as weapons caches, clearing the buildings one room at a time and eliminating threats as needed.

Throughout this process, they were met by actors who portrayed local Afghans, from a local market owner to hostile enemy forces that assaulted them with high-powered paintball guns. STS personnel used modified versions of their real-world weapons to fight back, employing non-lethal paint bullets, or “simunitions,” to return fire.

The Airmen also conducted full-mission-profile training tasks, using the equipment they would take with them overseas for a real-world operation. Among these tools were the Jaws of Life, a powered cutting device used to extract individuals from a downed aircraft or vehicle.

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A member of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron defends his position during training at Zussman Range at Fort Knox, Ky., on Nov. 21, 2013. The Airman and his teammates were practicing insertions, extractions and close-quarters combat in a simulated Afghan village. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

According to Master Sgt. Bryan Hunt, a combat controller for the 123rd STS, the unit does this type of training — which they call Military Operations on Urban Terrain — four times a year. It benefits both newcomers and unit veterans he said.

Each scenario was preceded by a dry run, or a practice walk-through. The Airmen would then execute a full-mission profile with night-vision goggles while taking simulated hostile fire.

“We try to apply everything we learned during a dry run, so when you’re actually being shot at, and you’re hot, your goggles are fogging up, the challenge was keeping your head, staying calm and applying the techniques you’ve learned previously,” Staff Sgt. G. said.

“The training was excellent and beneficial because it mimicked actual combat in Afghanistan. It represents that 360-degree battlefield that we experience in Afghanistan.”

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