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Air Commandos: Born in combat

Lt. Col. Derrick Barton is the 4th Special Operations Squadron commander. Barton is in charge of the largest of nine flying squadron within the 1st Special Operations Wing that employs the AC-130U Spooky gunship. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway/Released)

Lt. Col. Derrick Barton is the 4th Special Operations Squadron commander. Barton is in charge of the largest of nine flying squadron within the 1st Special Operations Wing that employs the AC-130U Spooky gunship. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway/Released)

Master Sgt. James Knight left, 18th Flight Test Squadron aerial gunner, performs a pre-flight inspection with Staff Sgt. Rob Turner right, 1st Special Operations Group Detachment 2 aerial gunner, on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., July 29, 2015. The aircrews of the 1st SOG Det. 2 were hand selected from the AC-130 community for their operational expertise and will begin initial operational testing and evaluation of the AC-130J later this year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher Callaway)

Master Sgt. James Knight, left, 18th Flight Test Squadron aerial gunner, performs a pre-flight inspection with Staff Sgt. Rob Turner, right, 1st Special Operations Group Detachment 2 aerial gunner, on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., July 29, 2015. The aircrews of the 1st SOG Det. 2 were hand selected from the AC-130 community for their operational expertise and will begin initial operational testing and evaluation of the AC-130J later this year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway/Released)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- There you were, at the bottom of a valley in Afghanistan, surrounded by Taliban fighters, running out of ammo and options. You radio in to the AC-130 gunship, flying two miles above your head, for help. Under cover, you wait for the aircraft to shoot unguided bullets filled with explosives through miles of air, from a plane moving over 200 mph, within 10 meters of where you’re lying. You imagine a grizzled crew of veterans who have done this for years pulling the trigger. In reality, it’s an airman 1st class under the age of 21.

The development of incoming Airmen to a combat-oriented unit in a time of war has many unique challenges. As the commander of the Air Force’s longest continually-deployed squadron, it amazes me to see how quickly a young Airman, sometimes fresh out of high school, develops into a trained professional. Before Sept. 11, 2001, most Airmen could wait years before seeing combat and applying their training during real-world missions. Now, fighting on two fronts, Airmen deploy just days after completing their initial training.

The AC-130 gunship demonstrates the requirement for Airmen to be combat ready professionals directly out of the schoolhouse. With a crew of 13, the highest ranking is often a young captain who has a tremendous amount of responsibility. Crewmember tasks vary from navigating through mountainous terrain and clearing potentially fatal gun malfunctions to spotting enemy missile launches and defending the aircraft.

The Airmen in each position will vary in experience, but the underlying rule will always be that the crew must trust the professional. If the crew cannot trust one individual, the weak link of the chain will affect the mission as a whole.

This concept clearly applies to any organization. All members must operate at a high level of skill and professionalism for the team to succeed. It is truly stunning to see what one poor performer, or “bad apple,” can do to the morale and readiness of a unit.

In any aircraft, you will always hear a mantra dictating that there is no rank on the plane. The ideas behind the lessons of professionalism taught to incoming Airmen are truly put to the test in this case. Often times, the younger crewmembers can find issues not noticed by the most experienced crewmembers. It is in these times the youngest of our Air Commandos must have the confidence to speak up and ensure the safety of the aircrew, as well as the teams on the ground they are supporting.

Air Commandos across the world demonstrate these values and abilities on a daily basis. Whether it’s safely inserting a ground party into an unprepared field, calling in an air strike or searching paths ahead of units for threats; unparalleled amounts of trust are put into the hands of young men and women. These requirements are why teaching our Airmen to train how they fight is paramount to our development systems. Not only must these Airmen be proficient in their jobs, but they must be mentally prepared for the gravity of their responsibilities.

The amount of trust and responsibility placed upon our aircrews is enormous, but I have been amazed time and time again at how they have responded. Just like our aircrews, you should always strive to be the expert in your field. There may quickly come the day when heads turn to you to make a life or death decision. It may not be easy, but it is what we signed up for as Air Commandos. Be prepared. Be vigilant. Immerse yourself in your specialty and become the one others know they can count on.