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Regional & National

With ranks stretched thin, Army gets Air Force to fill some duties

April 15th, 2007 11:33 pm by Associated Press



CAMP BULLIS, Texas - A row of rumbling flatbed trucks and Humvees outfitted with gun turrets lurches toward a mock village of cinderblock buildings where instructors posing as insurgents wait to test the trainees' convoy protection skills.


The training range is Army, as is the duty itself - one of the most dangerous in Iraq these days.


But the young men and women clad in camouflage and helmets training to run and protect convoys are not Army; they're Air Force.


They are part of a small but steady stream of airmen being trained to do Army duty under the Army chain of command, a tangible sign the Pentagon was scouring the military to aid an Iraq force that was stretched long before President Bush ordered 21,500 additional U.S. troops there.


"What we've seen is the Department of Defense continues to find ways to meet the requirements imposed by the commander in chief," said retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center in the John F. Kennedy School of Government.


No plans to expand the Air Force's role in convoy operations have been announced since Bush ordered the troop surge in Iraq, but Ryan said the Army and other branches of service have been looking at every possible job that can be shifted - from the Air Force performing convoy duty to the Navy setting up medical facilities far from waterfronts.


"I can't imagine there are any jobs that they could be doing that they aren't doing, but certainly, that doesn't mean they're not continuing to look to find every possible instance where we can use the full military to solve this problem and not just have this be an Army and Marine Corps issue," he said.


Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, said it makes sense to bring in other branches of service for routine activities such as the convoy operations, whereas "it's not something we should do to use them to clear buildings and conduct operations."


The 2,225 airmen who have been trained and sent to run convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan so far remain a relatively small part of the overall force that includes tens of thousands of soldiers, who are sent for longer stretches and more frequent deployments.


The training at Camp Bullis began nearly three years ago, without the elaborate camp that evolved with the persistent need for Air Force help and long before Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week extended active Army deployments by three months.


The Air Force is running a regular rotation of 5-week courses for airmen to work convoys between Kuwait and Iraq. Recently, separate training was created for those being deployed to Afghan- istan.


Few of the airmen, who once mostly moved or fixed equipment on Air Force bases, imagined they would be sent to fight in a ground war, but course trainers say it makes little difference.


"We want to be one team, one fight. It doesn't matter which service tape you have on your uniform," said 1st Lt. Matt Addington, the course commander.


Most Air Force enlisted personnel haven't had ground combat training, and the Army has its own sets of weaponry, terminology and command chains - all of which have to be taught to the airmen.


The Camp Bullis training, in an area named for two airmen killed in Iraq convoys, includes courses on assault rifles, roadside bomb recognition, combat first aid and driving tactics. The airmen live in a camp designed like a forward operating base, sleeping on cots, eating MREs and scrambling to shelter when air raid sirens sound. The training culminates with a 72-hour exercise that includes instructors dressed in long white shirts and tapestry caps, planting mock roadside bombs and shooting blanks at the convoy from open windows in an "urban warfare village." Many airmen were surprised at the assignment. "I was expecting just to be a vehicle operations troop, dealing with wreckers, forklifts - vehicles like that," said Senior Airman Robert Bledsoe, who manned a 50-caliber gun during his first deployment to Iraq. "It opened my eyes a bunch." He completed a second round of training last week with a unit that will deploy within about a week for a 6-month tour, longer than the standard 4-month deployments for most Air Force personnel but much shorter than the 15-month tours active Army personnel now face. Staff Sgt. Stewart Jordan, a transport instructor for the course, said even the most reluctant airmen-turned-soldiers usually come around, ultimately finding the mission fulfilling. "Those that it's tougher on realize that they signed on the dotted line," he said. (AP) Associated Press writer Sagr Meghani in Washington contributed to this report. AP-CS-04-15-07 1432EDT


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