Special Tactics Airmen redeploy home, face one-on-one rehabilitation

Capt. Danielle Schnitker, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron physical therapist, stretches the back muscles of a combat controller assigned to the 23rd STS. Schnitker mainly works on combat related injuries providing daily physical therapy to help with recovery, lower injury rates and ensure Airmen are deployment ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

Capt. Danielle Schnitker, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron physical therapist, stretches the back muscles of a combat controller assigned to the 23rd STS. Schnitker mainly works on combat related injuries providing daily physical therapy to help with recovery, lower injury rates and ensure Airmen are deployment ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

Capt. Danielle Schnitker, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron physical therapist, examines the shoulder of a combat controller assigned to the 23rd STS.  Schnitker mainly works on combat-related injuries providing daily physical therapy to help with recovery, lower injury rates and ensure Airmen are deployment ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

Capt. Danielle Schnitker, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron physical therapist, examines the shoulder of a combat controller assigned to the 23rd STS. Schnitker mainly works on combat-related injuries providing daily physical therapy to help with recovery, lower injury rates and ensure Airmen are deployment ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

Capt. Danielle Schnitker, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron physical therapist, stretches the leg muscles of a combat controller assigned to the 23rd STS. Schnitker mainly works on combat related injuries providing daily physical therapy to help with recovery, lower injury rates and ensure Airmen are deployment ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

Capt. Danielle Schnitker, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron physical therapist, stretches the leg muscles of a combat controller assigned to the 23rd STS. Schnitker mainly works on combat related injuries providing daily physical therapy to help with recovery, lower injury rates and ensure Airmen are deployment ready. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Steven Pearsall)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Recently, a squadron of special tactics Airmen returned to the U.S. after serving a deployment rotation in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

During their rotation in Afghanistan, more than 60 percent of the squadron received a combat related injury, yet 100 percent of the time, they kept pressure on the enemy.

The squadron of 80 to 90 Airmen has been submitted for more than 200 awards and decorations, to include the Silver Star.

During their deployment, the Airmen brought a dynamic capability to the battle space. With that capability comes a challenge -- maintaining healthy operators.

"We value the man more than we value the hardware," said Lt. Col. Chris Larkin, 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla. "The human being is the only weapons system we don't have a maintenance system for. Airframes like the C-130, F-35, F-22 -- they all have maintenance systems in place. What we're creating for our operators is a maintenance program."

What Larkin is referring to is a dynamic program currently in the test phases at the 23rd STS. The program includes preparing air commandos for the rigors of battle, yet treating the human body as if it's going through a marathon and not a sprint. Their goal is to build an Airman who can stay healthy and perform well for their entire career and not just for a few years.

The men of the expeditionary special tactics squadron that Larkin commanded in Afghanistan shouldered a heavy responsibility -- linking the battlefield with decisive air power.

"We bring airpower to the fight," said Larkin. "Our combat controllers, TACPs (Tactical Air Control Party), PJs (Pararescuemen) and SOWT (Special Operations Weather Team) bring the air-to-ground integration for the SOF (Special Operations Forces) on the battlefield."

"If one of our guys goes down and we can't support a unit, the worst case scenario, the unit goes out and gets ambushed," said Larkin. "The ground unit won't have the ability to leverage air power in defense of their force."

Something unique all Air Force special operators possess is the ability to push on with the mission. Staff Sgt. Colby Fisher, a combat controller, is no different.

Going into this deployment, Fisher had more than three years of training. It was that very training that prepared him for what he would face during a fire fight when he was shot and wounded.

"I knew what to expect when I got wounded," said Fisher "When I got hit, I looked down and knew it wasn't that big of a deal. I saw some bone fragments, but I pushed on.

"My first thought was to get out of the kill zone. Once I took cover and stopped the bleeding, my next thought was that we're still being shot at. The guy I was training during that mission called in my nine-line (report process for medical evacuation). I requested to stay and work. My boss in charge said that if our aircraft got here first, I could work it to bring in fire, but if the MEDEVAC gets here before, I'm out. The MEDEVAC arrived first."

Though Fisher was out of the ground fight with a shattered tibia for the time being, he's now fighting to get healthy enough to deploy again later this year.

"At first, I was curious as to what was going to take place," said Fisher. "I had a good support network. Doctors were saying full recovery from the beginning. My unit had someone by my side all the way from the theater back to the States."

Fisher is averaging 10 hours of rehab training each week with his squadron's physical therapist. If Fisher wasn't part of Air Force Special Operations Command, he may receive as little as one hour every two weeks, according to Larkin.

Sadly, it is doubtful that Fisher will be the last special operator injured on the battlefield. However, Larkin and the leaders at Air Force Special Operstaions Command take preparation and recovery of their Airmen very seriously.

"We're trying to prepare the SOF operator as best as humanly possible using all modern day technology to prepare them for the job and the combat environment.

"We have to maximize the force we have," said Larkin. "We're going to give them a long, healthy career. Hopefully injuries will go down and recovery time will be reduced."

Larkin talks about this topic with a passion. A telephone interview that was scheduled for 15 minutes ends at more than an hour.

"As a commander, I'm always concerned with the safety and health of my people," said Larkin. "I know in my heart we are providing the best training and equipment. Each operator has been personally checked out before entering the theater and upon redeployment. My goal is to prepare them to do the job we ask them to do."