332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Joint Base Balad, Iraq (AFPN) Sep 30, 2008
A familiar sound interrupted the daily hustle and bustle at the U.S. joint-service base here on a hot, dusty June day. Although the sun was out in full force, it couldn't be picked out of the sky as a haze of finely ground powder loomed over the base like a suffocating blanket.
The unmistakable alert warned everyone to get down - "Incoming!"
While everyone within earshot of the alert slid to the ground and covered their heads, Airmen and Solders operating in the Tactical Operations Center sprung into action. As they activated a finely tuned kill chain to eliminate any threats at the attack's point of origin, the attackers were already on the move.
Senior Airman Andrew Young, a joint terminal attack controller embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment watched live video feed from an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft system and located the perpetrators trying to escape.
He immediately sent out a call to headquarters asking for any available air support to respond to the situation. Marine AV-8 Harriers responded, hoping to make it there before the insurgents could get away.
As one of Joint Base Balad's few JTACs, Airman Young coordinates close-air support missions daily to protect Soldiers and Airmen working in and around Joint Base Balad, said Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Levis, the 2-320th FAR operations sergeant major.
It's a far cry from what he was doing several years earlier. Airman Young decided to join the Air Force while attending college.
"I decided to join the military for a number of reasons," said the native of State College, Pa. "But primarily because I realized I was too young to be stuck behind a desk for the rest of my life. And with all of the events in Iraq and Afghanistan going on, I wanted to try something I couldn't do anywhere else."
While many Airmen primarily serve in important support roles for the Air Force's aircraft fleet, ranging from setting up computer networks to loading bombs onto the wing of an F-16 Fighting Falcon, a select few get down and dirty and fall into the realm of battlefield Airmen.
Support roles are carried out within a fortified installation, but battlefield Airmen earn their paychecks in unprotected austere, and many times, extremely hostile, environments.
These Airmen, including combat controllers, combat weathermen, pararescuemen and JTACs, conduct ground operations that many people do not associate with the Air Force, and Airman Young wanted to be one of them.
"I chose to be a JTAC because I wanted to be in the Air Force and be out forward as an operator," he said.
Airman Young, assigned to the 1st Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron, operates from the battalion TOC here, side-by-side with his Army brethren to coordinate aircraft movements and ensure the safety of ground operators.
As a battalion JTAC, he advises the Army staff on the capabilities of air assets and assists in the planning process by determining how best to integrate and synchronize air power with the Army scheme of maneuver.
He also executes air support, such as armed reconnaissance of an area prior to an operation, marking individuals or locations as targets, or actually talking aircraft onto a target and calling in an airstrike.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Donald Day, the 2-320th FAR fires and effects coordinator, makes the initial examination of all elements in a sector and determines what the mission is and what air support is needed and provides that intelligence to Airman Young.
"The FEC comes to me and says, 'This is the mission, and this is what we're doing on the ground,'" Airman Young said. "I take that information and discuss our options with them before requesting the aircraft."
Missions often involve servicemembers from several branches of service.
"We have a lot of troops from our sister services embedded with our units on the ground," Sergeant Major Levis said. "We have Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technicians, electronic warfare officers, intelligence analysts and military working dog units."
"We make the request for what time and where we would like air coverage," Sergeant Day said. "But we also consider advice from the JTACs because they are the airpower experts."
Airman Young relays a list of mission requirements to the Air Support Operations Center, which prioritizes all airpower requests from across the area of responsibility and assigns specific aircraft to accomplish specific tasks. F-16s and MQ-1 Predators are the most-requested aircraft to provide air support over the Balad battlespace, which covers approximately 600 square miles.
"We work with a lot of people to get the equipment we need," Airman Young said. "We can work with the Marines to get F-18 Hornets or AV-8 Harriers, or we can work with British forces to use their aircraft."
These aircraft accomplish two missions in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
"At any given moment, we have two types of planes in the air," Airman Young said. "We have the aircraft we requested, and we have extra aircraft flying around Balad providing residual base defense."
The ASOC constantly keeps missions prioritized so that they can provide airpower to JTACs to assist ground troops if the situation changes. If emergency situations arise on the ground, JTACs can coordinate with the ASOC to call in emergency air support.
Once the JTACs have access to air support, they can coordinate with pilots to conduct armed overwatch and protect Department of Defense assets.
"Our team has accompanied Soldiers on numerous air assaults and high-value-individual raids during our deployment," Airman Young said. "We're all about providing the best air support to the Soldiers."
While serving his current enlistment, Airman Young has his sights on the future. He said he hopes to finish his bachelor's degree prior to completing his enlistment and find employment that allows him to spend more time with his family.
"My family is proud of what I do, but does not like the fact that I am away from home so much," he said.
Although he and his family make this sacrifice, Airman Young knows that his skills are vital to saving the lives of troops on and off the base -- skills that pay off every day.
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