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Reapers always ready to go with 72 hours' notice

Jun. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A special group of Security Forces airmen, known as 'Reapers,' practice key leader engagement in a simulated Afghan village.
A special group of Security Forces airmen, known as 'Reapers,' practice key leader engagement in a simulated Afghan village. (Lars Schwetje/Staff)
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MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, GA. — Four massive mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles rumbled by the pomegranate stands and an Afghan villager hawking meat.

The mission for the 822nd Base Defense Squadron was to practice KLE — key leader engagement — a skill the airmen, known as “Reapers” down range, have been working on for more than 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Squad leader Staff Sgt. Pablo Cancel was on point, walking up to meet the village leader, or malik, a man he told his team in a prebrief was “kind of shady.” This malik, a fellow airmen in robes, was flanked by his top lieutenants, one in Abercrombie & Fitch sandals.

After five minutes of small talk, the team mounted their vehicles to leave Sunah, a mock-up Afghan village located about 100 meters away from the Moody flight line.

Airmen watched the “villagers” begin to hide as they walked to the vehicles, and then an explosion struck.

A rocket-propelled grenade took out the second vehicle’s gunner. “Contact,” the team yelled as villagers took aim with AK-47s. An airman with the first vehicle was hit in the leg and had to be carried into the vehicles, and they took off.

The 30-minute exercise on a June morning was designed to simulate a regular mission for the Reapers, a special group of Security Forces airmen whose job is to go outside of the wire to protect a an expeditionary base. It is a job unique to them in the Air Force, and they have to practice it right.

“We try to make it as real as possible,” Tech. Sgt. Ed Morgan said. “You do what you have to do to bring your team back alive.”

Air Force's infantry

The Reapers trace their roots back to Vietnam, where they would come in after a first wave of troops who had seized an airfield and protect it, including by venturing into local villages to identify and take out threats. In recent years, their mission has focused on large bases such as Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where they have developed expertise at working with local villages and keeping American forces safe.

The majority of the 690 airmen in three squadronsat Moody are in the Security Forces career field, but their primary work is not the normal Security Forces work that most of the Air Force sees.

In an expeditionary force, the security of an airfield determines how the Air Force can operate, and security is the base defense group’s specialty.

“If the airplanes aren’t flying, the Air Force is ineffective. If the Air Force is ineffective, guys on the ground are going to die,” said Lt. Col. Chris DeGuelle, deputy commander of the 820th Base Defense Group.

An unfamiliar job

Staff Sgt. Dustin Bennett didn’t know what the mission was when he was first assigned, coming out of tech school.

“For the most part, I learned what I was doing when I got here,” he said.

Instead of writing tickets on base and riding in patrol cars, the airmen of the 820th Base Defense Group get MRAPs. Their training focuses on the fake Afghan village and how to respond to ambushes. Their corner of Moody, on the other side of the runway away from the base’s famous A-10s, HH-60Gs and C-130s, has an “IED lane,” where troops practice how to identify improvised explosive devices before setting them off to disable them — a loud siren in this case is triggered. The group has 15 military working dogs assigned, and they train to protect bases from attacks by troops dressed as Afghan villagers.

“We do basic small infantry tactics, as opposed to what you think of Security Forces, what you think of cops or military police doing,” Bennett said. “We don’t do any of that. I’ve never written a ticket, I’ve never pulled anyone over. When we train, we do ambushes, clearing out buildings, route recon. We do a whole different mission.”

Most Security Forces have a distinct, important home mission: protecting home bases. For the 820th BDG, their home mission is solely focused on training so they can be ready to deploy immediately. The Reapers say they can be ready and deploy within 72 hours of getting the call.

“Since our home mission is to train, just to prepare, that allows us the time and opportunity to be extremely proficient in what we do,” said Capt. Chris Hagemeyer, commander of the 822nd Base Defense Squadron.

While this rapid deployment has not happened for a contingency action, the group has deployed squadrons rapidly to respond to disasters such as the 2011 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The different mission focus means different career opportunities for the airmen in the group. The shoulders of multiple airmen at Moody feature ranger and airborne tabs, with the squadrons regularly sending airmen to Fort Benning, Georgia, to become Ranger qualified.

“This job here allows you to really take that narrow focus,” Hagemeyer said. “If you’re the kind of person who likes to be outside, who likes to do rigorous training, who wants to have the opportunity to go to external schools, if that’s the type of thing you want to do, a place like this is the exact place to achieve those goals.

Constant deployments

The three squadrons at Moody work in a circle: The 824th Base Defense Squadron is deployed to Jordan, where it protected an air base during Exercise Eager Lion earlier this month and has stayed; the 823rd is preparing to deploy and is in “on-call” status, and the 822nd recently returned from a deployment and is getting ready to ramp up its training.

The 105th Base Defense Squadron of the New York Air National Guard, stationed at Stewart ANG Base, New York, adds airmen to the deployments of the Moody crews. That unit is largely made up of police in the area.

It’s a stressful job, as the airmen face deploying for about six months and then are back home for a year before deploying again.

The mission will likely change for the troops at Moody, who have continually trained and rotated through the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade.

The Eager Lion deployment is one of the few times recently Reaper teams have been sent to somewhere that isn’t an active war zone, and it’s something the team expects to see more of. As troops leave Afghanistan, it’s possible that the village on the Georgia base could be redone to mimic a scenario in a place such as Africa.

“We may not even go to an active war zone,” Morgan said. “We can take another mission somewhere else, and that job has its own set of rules to follow and we’ll train for that.”

“We can get out the door as quickly as they need us to,” Bennett said. “We’re hungry to deploy.”

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