Hard work and training is the life for airmen who work north of Seoul
by Master Sgt. Louis A. Arana-Barradas, photos by Master Sgt. Val Gempis
Each day, Staff Sgt. Nate Sandler gets up early, goes to work and trains hard. If he’s lucky, he’ll get to “call in air” for the soldiers he works with. That puts a smile on his face.
Then he returns to his dormitory and grabs some chow. And if there’s no new movie to see, he’ll likely hit the sack early. The next day, he does the same thing over again.
Apart from a few trips into Seoul, and a one-month leave back home, that’s pretty much what his life will be like during his one-year tour in South Korea.
Lots of work and little play. Boring? To some it’s like gulping down a fistful of Sominex.
Sandler doesn’t think so. He’s an enlisted terminal attack controller with the 604th Air Support Operations Squadron. His job is calling in close air support missions for the Army’s 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry at Camp Greaves. A bluesuiter in a sea of green.
But he loves his job. The more he gets to do it, the better he gets at it. And the better he feels.
“There are a lot of motivated troops in the battalion. They accept us like one of them — it’s good to be a part of that. Their sense of urgency is higher than anyone else’s in Korea,” he said.
No wonder. The camp is a skip and a hop from the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas. He lives in Camp Casey, a 45-minute drive away — and only 12 miles from the DMZ.
Sandler would rather be home with his family, of course. Most of the troops feel the same way. After all, duty in South Korea isn’t the Air Force’s cream assignment. Living and working conditions aren’t the best. The yearlong separation from family has gnawed at the conscience of troops who’ve served there since the 1950s. But the sergeant said there are advantages.
“We put our training to work every day,” he said. Which lets him concentrate on his job and mission. “And I know I’ll leave here much better at what I do.”
Deterring the threat
But he doesn’t like the constant reminder of why he’s in South Korea. The area north of Seoul where he lives and works is home to dozens of U.S. and South Korean army camps. It’s the 2nd Infantry Division’s turf, “Warrior Country.” A no-nonsense place — and with good reason.
North Korea has a million-man army along the DMZ and thousands of artillery pieces trained on the South. Many of them are the long-range kind, and can drop shells on most of the camps. And on the South Korean capital of Seoul.
Some 37,000 U.S. troops in the South help maintain a fragile cease-fire on the divided peninsula. Because 50 years after an armistice silenced the guns of the Korean War, the threat to the South remains real. The two countries are technically still at war.
So at both camps, Sandler lives under North Korean guns. It’s the same for nearly all the troops in the northern camps. That’s something Sandler said is always in the back of his mind.
“So we don’t play around,” he said. “This is serious business.” That business is remaining a strong deterrent force to keep the North from “doing something stupid,” he said.
To help do the job, some 14,000 soldiers are on duty with the 2nd Infantry Division along the 150-mile long, heavily fortified DMZ. The few airmen who work with them are a key part of the force. Most are tactical air control party members, enlisted terminal attack coordinators, weather and a host of support troops.
They’re like a part of Army units. So they live, work, eat and sleep alongside their soldier comrades. They’re close to the fight. More so, since they must see the target to call in close air support and other strikes. But living like soldiers suits most of the airmen fine.
“We don’t want to be strangers,” Master Sgt. Jorge Collier said. He’s the Air Force’s only enlisted battalion air liaison officer in the country. And he leads a tactical air control party with the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry — of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame.
“We live with soldiers,” Collier said. “By eating with ’em, smelling like ’em, doing what they do, we become part of them. We want to do our job that way. It’s good business.”
Their business is vital to the division’s mission on the peninsula. There are 165 air support operations squadron troops. And 25 with Detachment 1, 607th Weather Squadron. Their job is to control close air support and attack sorties and provide weather information.
Both have headquarters with the division at Camp Red Cloud, some 15 miles northeast of Seoul. But the majority of the airmen work with Army units at some five or six camps.
They are the keyhole through which air power unlocks the door for the Army to maintain the peace, or win any future conflicts, said Lt. Gen. Charles Heflebower. He’s the 7th Air Force commander and the top U.S. airman on the peninsula.
They’re some of the best at what they do, Heflebower said. So the division commander knows how important they are to his ability to fight and win.
The 604th’s systems and control flight commander, Capt. George Dalton, said the division truly understands the importance of air power to their operations.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of an A-10 flying over their heads to strike at an enemy when all the hooah’s gone out of ’em,” he said.
Knocking out the guns
The airmen have a mission unlike any other in the service. Normally, an air support operations squadron either oversees tactical air control parties attached to Army manuever units or an air support operations center. In South Korea the 604th does both. It’s a “super squadron,” said Lt. Col. Eugene O’Nale, the 604th’s commander.
In both cases, the airmen work with their South Korean counterparts. The unit has the only hardened bunker air support operations center in the Air Force. And it’s the only one in the Air Force attached to a division. Normally only the larger corps get them.
The airmen don’t just direct aircraft to classic close air support targets like tanks. Their biggest and most unique task is supporting the division’s counterfire mission, O’Nale said. The aim? Shut down North Korea’s massive artillery capability at the start of a conflict.
“If not, those guns will rain chemicals and high explosives on us, Seoul and communications centers,” O’Nale said. “It would be a mess.”
The weather troops work as six combat weather teams with ground units. They provide the division all its weather support. That gives the commander the total battlefield picture. It also allows him to understand how it will affect his troops and weapons.
“And that will show the commander how it will effect the shape of a battle,” said Capt. Dan Pawlak, who commands the weather detachment.
He said most weather units, like those in Europe, support Army aviation units. In South Korea, they also support tank, artillery and infantry units. And the country’s diverse weather patterns, more complicated along the mountainous DMZ, keep the weathermen busy.
Training and more training
To stay on top of their game, all the troops in the northern camps train hard. It’s their life. So are recalls, exercises, donning chemical gear and spending time in the field.
It’s how they stay sharp and ready, Heflebower said. They get more training in a month than many in the stateside units, or those in Europe, get in a year, he said.
“In Europe I struggled to get A-10s for air liaison officers and enlisted terminal air controllers to control,” he said. “That’s not a problem here. They get to do all the controlling they want.”
Likewise, he said weather troops forecast in the areas where they’ll deploy.
“There’s nothing artificial about serving here,” he said. “It’s the real deal every day.”
Capt. Chris Austin is an F-16 pilot — an operator. He’s a flight commander at the Camp Red Cloud bunker. Running the counterfire war is a big task, he said. All aircraft in the fight get their orders from his troops. They direct the air war for the division commander.
“No other Air Force unit does what we do,” he said. “So all our training, all the proficiency we must reach is self-generated.”
The troops on the ground appreciate the job “our airmen” do, said Capt. Will Boswell, a squadron fire support officer with the 4th squadron, 7th Cavalry.
“They know what they’re doing,” he said. “We tell them what enemy formation we need to kill, and they tell us what kind of bomb load to drop on it. We can’t do our job without them.”
And they give soldiers a “warm fuzzy” in a pinch, said Sergeant 1st Class John Wick. A career tanker, he’s the Army squadron’s tank master gunner. The airmen he works with are part of his unit’s tactical operations center in the field.
“These airmen ‘get your back’ when we roll into combat,” he said. “You know how valuable they are when you run into a bad situation — when you need A-10s to come flying overhead.”
The airmen know that, too, and the job of maintaining the peace and going to war is one they learn fast.
Staff Sgt. Phil “Bear” Bell, an enlisted terminal attack controller, knows he’d be on the front lines in a fight. But not knowing if it will happen tomorrow takes some getting used to.
“It’s stressful thinking about that,” he said. “So you rely on your training — Air Force and Army — because we train like we’ll fight. You learn to depend on that, and each other.”
Heflebower said troops in South Korea have a sense of mission that’s second to none. Especially since North Korea’s capability to strike the South without warning hasn’t changed. The threat is real. So the mission for U.S. troops is real.
The two Koreas are talking reconciliation and reunification. After 50 years of U.S. presence, some South Koreans question the need for U.S. troops.
Not Yu Bang-woo, a 73-year-old former bar owner in Seoul. On a flight from San Antonio — where he took his niece to start college — to Seoul, he said it was because of the Americans that he could send her to school. They saved the South from the North’s onslaught, he said, providing the stability that allowed him and his country to prosper.
But many young Koreans want U.S. troops to leave. Yu said it’s because they’ve grown up in a prosperous country, insulated from the realities of war.
“They’re naive. They don’t know the dangers we still face from the North,” he said. “I will never trust them to keep any promise. They continue to provoke and talk tough. But older Koreans know this. And they don’t want the Americans to leave.”
Heflebower agrees South Korea needs a strong U.S. presence. That strong, well-trained and well-led deterrent force is what has created the stable environment under which the two countries exist. Without the troops there, the North might turn to a military option for reunification.
“While we’re here, we keep that option off the table,” he said.