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LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — This is where airmen entering battlefield careers steel their mind and body for what waits for them in the war zone.
They are pushed to stretch themselves physically and never quit. Ever.
"Keep your back straight!" shouts an instructor on the first day of the TACP Preparatory Course. "We're going to do more push-ups!"
The new five-day course for future tactical air control party airmen gets them ready for the next step: technical training at Hurlburt Field, Fla. It is just one of the ways the Air Force is trying to improve how it prepares and trains airmen for critical battlefield jobs.
The tough love the instructors dish out here is nothing the airmen can't handle, the instructors said.
"I like to refer to it as a one-week recruiting brief," said Tech. Sgt. Dan Nestor, an instructor supervisor for the course. "We take them and we try to flip the switch in their brain so they have an idea of what they're going to be doing."
So far, it seems to be working.
Since the first class in March, the TACP Preparatory Course has already contributed to a significant decrease in attrition when students get to technical training at Hurlburt Field.
The schoolhouse attrition has dropped from about 50 percent to about 30 percent, said Master Sgt. Dave Clark, the course chief for the TACP Preparatory Course.
The instructors here want to expand their course from five days to 10.
"An extra five days with them will be beneficial," Nestor said. "It will allow them more time to build team cohesiveness and build their attention to detail."
The extra five days also would allow instructors more time to whip students into shape and add some field training into the course, Clark said.
"Most of the guys will meet the standard," he said. "We just need to build their mindset."
Clark said according to the feedback he has received, students find it easier to transition from the preparatory course to technical training.
"The first three weeks at Hurlburt Field goes more easily for them," he said.
Clark said he and his instructors try to teach their airmen that teamwork is critical in their career field and that the decisions they will make on the job often have life-or-death consequences.
"Failure's not an option," Nestor said. "You cannot quit."
Training for the eight war-zone jobs — combat rescue officer, special tactics officer, air liaison officer, pararescue jumper, combat controller, TACP, and enlisted and officer special operations weather technician — is so grueling that the Air Force has long struggled to fill those career fields.
Each of the jobs is considered stressed or undermanned, leaving training officials with the tough balance of producing enough qualified candidates without sacrificing the quality of the training pipelines.
Training someone to be a battlefield airman involves three things, said Capt. Sam Schindler, the combat training flight commander.
"Social, psychological and physical," he said. "Physical is 10 percent. But do they fit in and can they handle the mental stresses? We have guys who will teach themselves to swim, and we have college swimmers who don't make it. It's all about heart."
In any given year, battlefield instructors at Lackland see about 500 combat control students, 70 special operations weather students, 600 TACP students and about 630 PJ candidates, Schindler said.
In their effort to improve retention, instructors are doing more mentoring and implementing strict elimination policies, he said.
These efforts have allowed them to increase the number of airmen without decreasing quality, Schindler said.
The combat control selection course, for example, went from meeting 60 percent of its production goals to 120 percent this year, he said.
"We're competing with the Army and the Navy and the Marine Corps for these guys" making it critical to recruit the right candidates and train them well, Schindler said.
There's still more to come for combat controllers, said Staff Sgt. Robert Parra, one of the instructors, who said the goal is to expand the course from two weeks to four next year. That would give instructors more time to work on water confidence drills and skills, he said.
Instructors are also carving out time for future battlefield airmen — before they complete basic military training — to prepare them for what's coming. On Jan. 4, the Air Force launched the Battlefield Airman Technical Training Liaison Element, with teams of airmen from each of the battlefield career fields and three civilians — a medic, an athletic coach and a swim coach.
The team will conduct weekly mentoring sessions with the BMT trainees, Schindler said.
"Just that simple engagement, mentoring … that is something that has never been done before, and I see it as a very good investment," he said.
The experienced airmen also will work with the BMT trainees during physical training sessions to better prepare them for the rigors of their upcoming training pipelines.
It is hoped that the one-on-one mentoring will eliminate some of that fear and uncertainty and better prepare trainees for what they're about to experience, Schindler said.
"Ninety percent of the time these guys are scared of failure and they have no idea what they're getting into," he said.
•Combat rescue officer
•Special tactics officer
•Air liaison officer
•Special operations weather technician (enlisted and officer)