The J-Team: Air Commando engineers "Always There, Anywhere"

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
If you've ever flipped a light switch, driven on a paved road or even flushed a toilet on an Air Force base, you've benefited from the technical know-how and practical expertise of a civil engineer.

Civil engineer squadrons perform vital services at Air Force bases around the world. Most civil engineer squadrons' daily routines are dedicated to solving any issues with base infrastructure, like streets and airfield pavements, or utilities, like water, electricity and sewage treatment.

In some cases when engineering savvy is required on a deployable, wartime scale and in places where no infrastructure may exist at all, the Air Force turns to the skills and assets of Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers.

While civil engineer squadrons are normally tasked with regular installation maintenance and RED HORSE specializes in rapid contingency capabilities, the 1st Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron effectively handles both roles at home and abroad.

The J-Team, whose name is derived from its unit type code designation, is comprised of three eight-person units of engineering specialists who enable special operations forces by providing resources to sustain their presence for weeks wherever they are required.

"The J-Team puts the 'SO-' in front of 'SOCES' for us," said Lt. Col. Shawn Moore, 1st SOCES commander. "We are just like any other engineering squadron in the Air Force where we support planes and missions, but we have extra chapters in our playbook. Our J-Teams make us among the most agile and responsive of any civil engineer squadron to meet any mission demands."

The teams utilize Air Force Special Operations Command-unique, quickly-deployable, bed-down equipment called Air Rapid Response Kits. The self-sufficient kits can be used to provide 100 people with quarters, showers and central command facilities for up to 30 days and, if the mission requires, may include water purification, environmental control, enhanced fuel storage and an armory. The three-pallet ARRKs can fit into a single C-130 and be set up and taken down within hours, a complementary aspect for many special operations missions.

"The capability is meant to support the quick-in, quick-out mission of AFSOC," said Daniel Wilcoxen, 1st SOCES civil engineer and former J-Team officer in charge. "We become more of a tighter-knit group because we leave such a small footprint in order to do what we need to do to."

Although many people might take for granted clean water for a shower or air conditioning during the hot months, the J-Team's contributions of garbage removal and organized plumbing can mean everything to deployed Airmen.

"When you're in a group like this, you can really see the tangible benefits of what you do," said 1st Lt. David Kohlhepp, 1st SOCES J-Team officer in charge. "It's a good motivator for our team, because they can instantly see the results of their work. It's compounded so much more when you're in the J-Team, because you're all the support that they have."
The J-Team specialists' skills range from electricity to plumbing and power generation, and, while their occupations may work in separate shops, they work closely together to complete structures and provide supplies to special operations Airmen.

"Being an Air Commando engineer means we really need to be prepared at all times to deploy and be able to multitask," said Master Sgt. Heath Feuss, 1st SOCES electrical power production NCO in charge. "And when we deploy as a J-Team, we really get to experience different career fields all mixed together to accommodate the mission."

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Bibbins, 1st SOCES heavy equipment operations and J-Team member, began his Air Force career under a civil engineering squadron at another base before being tasked to a RED HORSE squadron. When he found out he would leave the swift pace of RED HORSE to go back to civil engineering at Hurlburt Field, he said he thought it would be a typical assignment complete with fixing street signs and potholes.

"I had some pretty big expectations after doing projects all over the world for RED HORSE," Sergeant Bibbins said. "But the J-Team really surprised me that such a small group of people could set up for a huge group of people to follow behind them. I really didn't think that too many CE units could drop in at a moment's notice, get everything organized and set up like this."

Since its formalization in late 2005, the J-Team has deployed in support of training missions and operations worldwide. Hours after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti Jan. 12, J-Team members set up the first encampments for relief effort personnel at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

"We had a lot of people after Haiti say 'I didn't know there were civil engineers doing that,'" Mr. Wilcoxen said. "One of the things that always stuck with me from Haiti was when a major told me 'There are a lot of squadrons at Hurlburt Field with 'Special Operations' in their name because they're part of the wing. But you guys in civil engineering proved that you are special operations in how quick you were to do what you had to do and the type of support you provided. You should be proud of yourselves, because you truly are special operations.'"

So whether they're repairing a light on base or providing drinking water for deployed Airmen, the J-Team members and 1st SOCES will stand by their motto of supporting Air Commandos by always being there, anywhere.

"I feel like there's a change in the distance between the special operators, who are at the very tip of the spear, and where I work with engineering," Lt. Kohlhepp said. "The distance is much shorter in AFSOC for these types of jobs than if I were at any other engineering squadron. I feel a lot closer to the mission, and being an AFSOC engineer is one way to make that much more of a difference."