As a commander, one of my greatest responsibilities is to prepare my Airmen for deployment in the service of our country. To do this, it’s necessary that Airmen develop and maintain a resilient warrior mindset.
Mechanical vs. mental combat skills
I’ve served in the Air Force for 19 years and have deployed five times. My second deployment was to Iraq as part of an embedded military training team. I was the team leader and convoy commander for a Joint team of Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps members.
Although we traveled in three, up-armored Humvee gun trucks, and received instruction for operations “outside the wire” through 60 days of combat skills training, we could have used more training on the mental effects of direct personal engagement of the enemy.
We trained extensively on the mechanics of engaging the enemy, but were we prepared to engage another human in combat? That is the ultimate question and having this discussion with our youngest Airmen is tremendously important.
We are the best trained fighting force the world has ever seen. We train Airmen to hit the target with personal and crew-served weapons, but we generally do not prepare them for the moment they need to engage without hesitation.
We teach Law of Armed Conflict training and brief on the rules of engagement, but we generally do not prepare Airmen on how to handle the psychological damage that can result from direct, close range combat.
Just-in-time training is great, but long term commitment to professional development of resilient warriors is much more effective. This will give our Airmen the unflinching ability to engage in close combat, understand the physiological effects that occur during combat, and allow them to limit the psychological effects of close combat after the event.
I recently completed a professional development session with my CE officers, reading and discussing the book, On Combat, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He is a tremendous scholar and his book goes into great detail, but I will only touch on the main themes.
The human element of combat
I believe that the focused study of the human element of combat is critical to ensure that Airmen know what to expect when they get into a hostile situation. Many of our Airmen have never seen combat up close, and yet we expect them to be able to make the split second decision to take the life of another human being if necessary.
We train them to hit paper silhouettes and pop up targets with their rifles, but we do not discuss the psychology of pulling the trigger when it is another human being in their sights. Grossman said in these situations, Airmen may experience auditory exclusion or visual impairment, they may have slow motion time sensations, or they may freeze and be unable to act.
If Airmen know what to expect, they can react faster than the enemy could in real combat. They will understand that even in a gunfight, they may not hear anything. They will be prepared for the possibility of tunnel vision and know they may not see enemy soldiers coming at them from their flanks.
They will know that if they train to put an expended magazine in their pocket after firing only three rounds in training at the range, they might well do the same thing in a combat situation even though the enemy is still advancing.
Finally, a large proportion of combat veterans report losing control of their bowels. This is not the kind of thing you see in the movies, let alone talk about. It does not make the Airman a coward, and knowing what to expect can help our Airmen prepare against devastating self-doubt and blame that feeds post-traumatic stress disorder.
Realistic training plus discussions about coping strategies
Taking life, in any form, does not come naturally. Any moment of hesitation could cost an Airman his or her own life. However, proper preparation can be lifesaving in high-threat combat situations. Realistic combat training is critical for preparing our Airmen to fight.
The Air Force offers intense combat training using rubber bullets fired from an M-4. These bullets, a third the size of paintballs and traveling twice as fast, leave welts on any part of the body not covered by protective gear. Needless to say, this training provides motivation to move quickly as a team, with good tactics, and covering fire to avoid getting shot. Although we cannot get everyone through this level of tactical training in the Air Force, we can talk about the realities of combat and help our Airmen be prepared to shoot if necessary. The unfortunate loss of our Air Advisors in Afghanistan from an insider threat in 2011 is the clearest example of why this is so important.
Realistic training coupled with discussions from combat veterans can help prepare our Airmen for deployments. The Tactical Readiness Skills lane here at Scott AFB creates this type of training environment. The TRS lane provides our Airmen training against chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, along with Tactical Combat Casualty Care and combat movement techniques all in one course here at our Warrior Training Area.
We need Airmen with a resilient warrior mindset in combat zones. These skills may be even more important after leaving the battlefield. Given the level of psychological damage that returning veterans may have, developing these skills early on may help them to cope with their experiences for the rest of their lives.
Resilient mindsets save lives
Helping Airmen develop resilient warrior mindsets can save their lives. If our Airmen engage in direct combat, they may have lingering psychological issues from the things they did and the things they did not do.
Reconciling your personal beliefs before enemy engagements can pay huge dividends, as even defending yourself from another human being who is actively trying to kill you can be mentally destabilizing. Extreme human aggression and violence based on two opposing forces and ideologies is very different from the crime of murder, and working with Airmen to think through these challenges before they are engaged in them is the key.
We need to continue to talk about the psychological rigors of combat, both before and after each deployment so they have a variety of tools they can use to deal with any circumstance they may find themselves in. While most Airmen may never have to engage the enemy in direct combat, we still need to work to reduce the incidences of PTSD and suicide while making our Airmen stronger and more effective at the same time.
Helping Airmen become more resilient carries over to their daily lives and can help them deal with the stresses at home, as well. It is my belief that we can become even more effective through purposeful training of our Airmen to develop a resilient warrior mindset.