Airmen test counterinsurgency skills during Raven Claw

11/06/2009 -- "Having Hurlburt Field on a set of orders does not make you an Air Commando; you have to earn it."

Those words are inscribed on a plaque above the doorway leading to the Combat Aviation Advisor Mission Qualification Course, where Airmen are trained in counterinsurgency doctrine and regional skills.

After seven weeks of training, 18 Airmen passed through this doorway Nov. 2-6 to earn the title of Air Commando in a simulated irregular warfare exercise known as Raven Claw on the Eglin range.

Vincent Milioti, director of the CAAMQC, worked with other instructors to create and evaluate the scenarios in the exercise, many drawn from their combined experiences dealing with counterinsurgency operations.

"The training has to be the way it is," Mr. Milioti said. "We didn't read about this in a book; we lived it. We're here to prepare these men for the missions that they will someday be asked to perform."

After landing at the Eglin range, the crew was escorted to a tent encampment in the woods by a security detail made up of volunteers posing as partner nation soldiers. From there, students assessed and advised their indigenous counterparts on tactical movements and individual medical treatment.

Tech. Sgt. Ryan Stanhope, 19th Special Operation Squadron, said trying to teach the partner-nation force about security and personnel recovery tactics was the most meaningful part of the exercise.

"We started here with a zero-percent understanding, and we ended with everyone getting savvy and getting their head in the game," Sergeant Stanhope said.

Throughout the exercise, students faced different scenarios such as providing casualty treatment for local civilians, handling potential human rights violations and reacting to improvised explosions during the middle of the night. They were also given surprise inspections by generals of the partner nation's air force played by real squadron commanders from Hurlburt Field.

Tech. Sgt. Brian Lilienthal, 6th SOS, went through the exercise in April 2008. Like many former students who volunteered time to pose as the partner nation's military personnel, he tried to instill to the new class what he learned while he was a student and while he was later deployed.

"Ultimately you want to them to succeed, because they may be working alongside you someday," he said.

Later in the week, students were treated to a banquet hosted by the local community where the main cuisine was an assortment of raw fish heads, tripe and insects. Airmen stomached the meal not just because they hadn't eaten in several hours, but also because they didn't want to offend their partners who considered the food a luxury.

"The experience of eating locusts was unforgettable," said Capt. Andrew Bruce, 19th SOS.

On the last day of the exercise, the students were presented a failed state scenario and readied for a 20-mile expedition across the Eglin range at night with no time for sleep.

After navigating through swamps and creeks to avoid enemy detection, they were airlifted to Hurlburt Field for a graduation ceremony at Freedom Hangar the next morning, where they were presented Air Commando uniform tabs.

"This was the best Air Force training I've ever done," Captain Bruce said.

Both Captain Bruce and Sergeant Stanhope said they hoped to be roleplayers for the next exercise.

"I already signed up," Sergeant Stanhope said. "It's a good chance for us to impart the knowledge that we learned to assist the next guys."

As he congratulated the Airmen for their completion of the Raven Claw exercise, Mr. Milioti said he knew what kind of world they would later be stepping into.

"Whether they will be in a five-star hotel, wearing a suit and tie, dealing with diplomats, heads-of-state or military agencies, or living and working out of a hut in a jungle camp somewhere in the world, they will be ready for the challenge. They are the Air Force Special Operations' premiere warrior diplomats," he said.

CAAMQC is a year-long course that was specifically designed to prepare unit members to perform duties as a combat aviation advisor in the mission areas of foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency and coalition support. The course has four separate but interrelated phases of training: mission development and operating environments; integrated skills training; language and cultural training; and specialty developmental training.