Getting Iron for the Bullhorn God
SMSgt Ferguson firing a ComBloc PKM during OpFor training at Ft Carson
The Earthquake Simulator
September, 2012: We were doing Rapid Response Team training, hosted by JTM at “Gunfighter Village” on Nellis AFB. JTM were defense contractors, a training organization manned by former Tier 1 special forces operators (mostly PJs, but also Delta, and I think some SEALs).
One of our rotations was through something JTM called the “Earthquake Simulator.” None of us knew what to expect. We started out flipping over tractor tires, like in a Crossfit class. Then they had us doing pushups with our boots up on the tires. When we were good and sweaty, they put bags over our heads and pushed us into a series of roll-off containers that had been welded together. The first thing I noticed was the noise. There was a speaker producing “white noise,” a constant “chchchchch” sound, so loud we would have to yell with our heads close together to hear each other.
They bolted the door shut behind us. There was no way to escape without help from the outside.
Almost simultaneously, I noticed the particulate-filled air. I had a moment of anger and mild panic as I thought it was OC, CS, or CN. Then I realized it was something irritating but less toxic, like the smoke generators they use for Rock concerts.
A god-like voice cut through the gloom. “TAKE OFF YOUR HOODS.”
It was pitch black in there.
Vaguely, through the almost painfully loud stream of constant noise, I could hear somebody screaming for help farther back in the structure.
My first inclination was to pull out my flashlight. I always carry a minimum of 1, and usually 2, light sources. Something told me, through, that they wanted us to learn how to operate when deprived of a few senses (in this case, vision and most of our hearing). I did not know it at the time, but there was an IR (infrared) light source on in there; a cadre member was in a control booth watching everything we did through night vision.
“May I use the flashlight I carry every day specifically for that purpose?” I asked the faceless cadre, as loud as I could, waving my flashlight about without turning it on.
The white noise stopped, only for half a second.
“NO,” the god-like voice said.
We felt our way along the walls, coming to a chain link fence. The guy screaming for help was somewhere on the other side of it. I couldn’t pull the bottom of the fence up high enough to crawl under, and it felt pretty high. I pulled out the Leatherman tool I carry. Something told me they wouldn’t want me to clip a hole in their chain link, but you never know unless you ask.
“May I use the Leatherman I carry specifi–“
“NO,” the god-like voice interrupted.
It took me back to another time . . . another place . . . to a Master Sergeant behind a bull horn: MSgt L. Ferguson.
MSgt (later Senior Master Sergeant, or SMSgt) Ferguson was the superintendent and coach of our Olympic Arena team, during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.
To understand SMSgt Ferguson’s story, and how it intersected with mine, you must first know a little bit about that. Olympic Arena, or OA, was a command-wide competition between the various Strategic Air Command (SAC) missile bases.
The Cold War (1945 – 1989) was, as Eric Schlosser pointed out, the single longest period of peace between Europeans in recorded history. I always intended to be on the front lines of the Cold War, facing down the Evil Empire across the Wall by day, and drinking Bitburger Pils in German gasthouses (or Guinness Stout in British pubs), by night.
Instead, I wound up on what the USAF calls the Northern Tier: the vast regions of North America’s plains that were home to SACs ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) and bomber / tanker fleets.
Work on the Northern Tier could be grim.
Earlier in my career I’d been advised, quite wisely, that if they told you your next base “had great hunting and fishing,” that meant you were screwed.
Minot AFB, a few miles from the Canadian border in North Dakota, was the ultimate Northern Tier base: “Why not Minot? Freezin’s the reason.” To which those who lived there might reply that “Minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit keeps out the riff-raff.”
It wan’t just the extreme weather of the windswept northern plains. Norway gets cold, too, but the Air Force attache at our embassy in Oslo probably had much better morale than most folks on the Northern Tier.
Mostly, it had to do with the nuclear mission.
The ICBM Mission
Our fighter pilots train hard, and train well, in case their skills are ever needed.
An A-10 pilot doesn’t want to kill the crew in an enemy tank. But if she does, she at least has the consolation of knowing that some American GIs are more likely to go home to their own families. At least SOMEBODY in that fight will be happy she did her job, and did it well. Besides–and I can tell you this from personal experience–there are few things more fun than high angle strafe.
For ICBM launch crews, NOBODY, especially not them, will be happy if they end up having to do their job. It might safely be argued that their job is to be so good at what they do, such a credible deterrent, if you will, that they NEVER have to do what they constantly train to do.
This poem pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a missileer on an ICBM combat crew:
In vacant corners of our land,
off rutted gravel trails,
There is a watchful breed of men,
who see that peace prevails.
For them there are no waving flags,
no blare of martial tune,
There is no romance in their job,
no glory at high noon.
In an oft’ repeated ritual,
they casually hang their locks,
Where the wages of man’s love and hate,
are restrained in a small red box.
In a world of flick’ring colored lights,
and endless robot din,
The missile crews will talk awhile,
but soon will turn within.
To a flash of light or other worldly tone,
conditioned acts respond.
Behind each move, unspoken thoughts,
of the bombs that lie beyond.
They live with patient waiting,
with tactics, minds infused,
And the quiet murmur of the heart,
that hopes it’s never used.
They feel the loving throb,
of the mindless tool they run,
They hear the constant whir,
of a world that knows no sun.
Here light is ever present,
no moon’s nocturnal sway.
The clock’s unnatural beat,
belies not night or day.
Behind a concrete door slammed shut,
no starlit skies of night,
No sun-bleached clouds in azure sky,
in which to dance in flight.
But certain as the rising sun,
these tacit warriors seldom see,
They’re ever grimly ready,
for someone has to be.
Beneath it all they’re common men,
who eat and sleep and dream,
But between them is a common bond,
of knowledge they’re a team.
A group of men who love their land,
who serve it long and well,
Who stand their thankless vigil,
on the brink of man-made hell.
In boredom fluxed with stress,
encapsuled they reside,
They do their job without complaint,
of pleasures oft’ denied.
For duty, honor, country,
and a matter of self-pride.
–Captain Robert A. Wyckoff, Missileer *
AF pilots affectionately refer to the missileers as “Coneheads.” Tom Cruise will never star in a movie called “Top Missileer” (or, for that matter, “Top B-52 Radar Navigator”).
Many people, even some of those who are part of our nation’s ICBM and SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) forces, have a hard time wrapping their brains around the concept of nuclear deterrence. But it’s not entirely unlike you, as an armed citizen, when a grisly looking dude with a knife approaches your family. You point your gun at him and tell him to go away. You don’t want to kill him, but you damned-sure will, if he forces you to.
If the look in your eyes tells him that’s true, it’s more likely he will leave, and you won’t have to shoot anybody. You’re not trying to change him, or his way of life, or to nation build. You just want him to say to himself, not today, and to go away.
PRP: the Personnel Reliability Program
The emblem of the Strategic Air Command had a fist in a gauntlet, holding lightning bolts and an olive branch. SAC’s motto was “Peace is Our Profession.”
Because the stakes are so high with thermonuclear devices, mistakes were not tolerated in the Strategic Air Command. There was an unauthorized SAC patch you might encounter from time to time (but never where the commander could see it). Instead of lightning bolts and olive branches, the mighty Mailed Fist of SAC held a scrotum. The scroll along the bottom read,
To err is human; to forgive is not SAC policy.
All personnel who were even remotely involved with nukes were enrolled in the Personnel Reliability Program, or PRP. There were psychological tests. Commanders had to personally interview each of their personnel. Even Treads like me had to have a Secret clearance.
If you got flagged under the PRP, you were suspended from duty. A parking ticket or minor moving violation might not jam you up with the PRP, but just about any other involvement with the law would. Certain medications could knock you off. Even Tylenol would. Consequently, AF docs prescribed ibuprofen for just about every condition, from broken bones to pregnancy. Of course, numerous medical maladies (including those) would also knock you off the PRP.
The zero-defects, checklist mentality of SAC jobs became a grind after a while.
At flying bases, the maintenance types could say “We generated X number of sorties (flights) this month” (or “this quarter” or “this fiscal”). There was a small helicopter outfit supporting each missile wing, but if anybody else on base generated a sortie–an ICBM sortie–something was seriously wrong. In other words, if you did your job right, there was not much to do, and very little to report.
All the more so in the Security Police groups. At least the Communications squadron types could say, “I fixed three broken radios today.” What could the sky cops (also called sky pigs, for SPs, or Security Police) say? “My flight had 10 missiles at the start of my shift. Nobody stole any of them on my watch.”
Frankie’s Rocket Ranch
I lucked out, being stationed at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the balmy southern shores of the Northern Tier. FE Warren AFB, originally Fort DA Russell, had been an Army Cavalry post before the Air Force existed. President Lincoln established the post to protect a railroad crossing over Crow Creek, which ran right through the base.
There were roughly 1100 cops–by that, I mean badge wearing, gun toting Security Police men and women–in the 90th Security Police Group at FE Warren. Most of the time, most of them were not actually at FE Warren, but rather scattered throughout our enormous missile field, which covered SE Wyoming, western Nebraska, and NE Colorado.
It took so long to get to the missile sites–some were several hours away from the main base–that we would stay out there for three days and nights, then come back on the fourth day. The Missileers downstairs pulled 24 hour shifts in their launch capsule. Unless a bad snow storm hit, in which case all bets were off.
At first, there was some down time. We got 5 1/2 days off, with maybe one or two of those days being used for training, medical appointments, or admin. They called it a “3 on 6 off” (3.5 on, 5.5 off) schedule. Then it went to “3 on, 3 off, 3 on, 6 off.” Then it was just “3 on, 3 off.”
The Ferguson Weight Loss Program
To build and maintain morale, SAC got some special dispensations. The bomber and tanker crews were allowed to paint (relatively tasteful, pre-approved) nose art on their planes, to remember their WWII heritage. I met an all female tanker crew with a painting of Fabio, the broad-chested romance novel cover model, on their KC-135.
The ICBM bases had Olympic Arena, also called Missile Comp, short for Missile Combat Competition.
The training season lasted from roughly December through May of the next year, when the competition was held at Vandenberg AFB in Lompoc, California. Competitors were relieved of other duties so they could focus completely on preparing for the competition.
As with the Olympics, there were several different disciplines.
Missileers, for example, competed against missile crews from the other bases. Their part of the competition was Top Secret, and took place in a launch capsule simulator.
The Comm Squadron teams competed against Comm troops from other bases. In their competition, they would be given a piece (or several pieces) of broken communications equipment, and graded on how well they trouble shot and repaired it.
There were also missile maintenance teams, missile handling teams, and Facility Managers competing. FMs maintain the equipment at the Launch Control Facilities (LCFs).
The Security Police teams competed in three different ways:
- A biathlon type live fire shooting match, where we ran, shot, ran some more, shot some more, etc. We primarily shot M16 rifles, but also M203 grenade launchers and M60 machine guns, at pop-up targets.
- One or two tactical exercises. These scenario-based exercises used MILES, the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (see below). OpFor (Opposing Forces, playing heavily-armed terrorists seeking to gain control of a nuclear weapon), were select members of the SAC Elite Guard out of SAC HQ at Offut AFB, Nebraska. The Air Force sometimes called OpFor role players or pilots “Aggressors.”
- A 1.5 mile long obstacle course. SAC called it a “confidence course.” I was confident that, each time I ran it, I would be wishing I was somewhere else, doing anything else, before it was done.
Of the 1100 Sky Cops in our group, 11 – 14 would be selected for the team. That sounds pretty exclusive–it was–but in fairness, only 100 – 200, if that many, actually tried out.
Everybody knew that training up for the comp would be no picnic, and not everybody was interested in putting out that much effort for no change in pay. Much easier to sit on a couch at a launch control facility (LCF) in Nebraska, staring at Baywatch till an alarm went off at a missile site (LF, or launch facility).
I had my reasons for trying out.
Part of it was the family business. My father had been on the 50th Fighter Wing gunnery team when he flew F-86s in the mid 1950s. They won first place in the USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe).
Mainly, for me, though, it was the opportunity to train to a higher standard–and for the free ammo. I got to shoot easily 10 times more bullets (and 20 times more blanks) in any one of my three seasons as an OA competitor than most SPs got to shoot in their entire careers.
The initial selection process was mostly physical (how many pushups / pullups / situps you could do, how fast you could run, etc.), combined with an examination of your shooting scores (recorded on AF Forms 522), and perhaps peer or commander evaluations. At least, that’s how it was my first season, Dec ’86 to May of ’87, when our coach was MSgt Cole. For some reason, they called it Olympic Shield in ’87.
The following year, when SAC went back to calling it Olympic Arena, SMSgt Ferguson took over the team. MSgt Cole had been professional, if informal. SMSgt Ferguson’s approach was somewhat more involved. After reviewing our 522s to see what our previous shooting scores were, SMSgt Ferguson had us shoot for score as part of the tryouts. Just ’cause you were on the team before, or shot well when it didn’t matter, didn’t make you a shoe-in this year.
As with on the street, it was how well you could perform on demand that counted.
During tryouts for the following (’89) season, SMSgt Ferguson even introduced tactical skills and field leadership evaluations as part of the selection process. He would give us NCOs (non-commissioned officers, or sergeants) a handful of troops and an objective to seize. “The traffic cone in that open over field there is the Resource” (we were not officially allowed to confirm or deny the presence of nukes; they were “Priority A Resources”). “It’s been taken by an unknown number of bad guys. These men are your fire team. You have 10 minutes to take it back.”
He graded us on how quickly we came up with a plan, how good our plan was, how we communicated the plan to our troops, and how well we implemented it. Different NCOs had different levels of tactical acumen, but most of the above were basic NCO leadership skills we’d all trained on.
Of course, there was a twist.
Unbeknownst to the NCOs trying out, SMSgt Ferguson had instructed some of the junior troops on our fire team to NOT do what we told them to do, or to do it wrong.
The tryouts took place at the base “Fam Camp,” which was along Crow Creek. That was about the only part of FE Warren AFB, which was on the high plains, where there were any folds in the terrain or brush to hide behind. Vandenberg AFB, where the competition would take place, was on the coast of California, and had plenty of such terrain features.
It being December in Wyoming, Crow Creek was mostly frozen over. I split my team into two elements and ordered them to move up each side of the creek toward the resource.
One young airman steadfastly refused. “Un-uh. I’m not going to do it.”
“Not going to do what?” I asked. It’s not unusual to have to clarify orders when a subordinate does not understand instructions, but outright refusal was completely unheard of. It’s not like I was asking him to shoot civilians in a ditch at Mỹ Lai. I didn’t know Fergy had put him up to it.
“I’m not crossin’ that creek. I, uh”–he fished around for a plausible excuse–“I could fall through the ice.”
“Listen,” I said, somewhat flabbergasted, “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” I ran back and forth across the frozen creek a few times, to show him it would hold his weight. “See? Now get your ass over on that side of the creek and move out.” Can’t remember if I added “or I’ll kick it over there,” but I know I was thinking it.
He sheepishly complied. In retrospect, I think he was as uncomfortable not following orders as I had been to have mine refused.
“We follow orders, or people die. It’s that simple.”
–Jack Nicholson, as “Col Nathan Jessup,” in A Few Good Men
Later, as we made our way up the creek, I heard a crunching noise, and a splash. I looked back and saw that he had indeed fallen through the ice (Crow Creek was only about knee-deep at that point). I felt bad for the guy. I also felt bad that part of me wanted to smirk.
By my third season, I’d fallen though that ice more times than I could remember. It was chest-deep in some places. We trained in and around Crow Creek all winter; it was the only place there was any concealment. “Surf’s up,” we used to say, on our way to the creek.
SMSgt Ferguson wanted us to bring ALL our gear, every day, so we could change our training plans at a moment’s notice. Our other team motto became “Semper Gumby:” always flexible. One of the wives made our team a T-shirt with Gumby on a surfboard, rifle strapped across his back.
The first year SMSgt Ferguson selected me for the OA team (in November ’87, for the April ’88 competition), he told me he picked me because I couldn’t run.
I was confused.
“You run all wrong,” he said. “You run on your toes, instead of heel-toe. Any normal person would quit after a few miles. But you just keep going. If we can teach you to run correctly, we might have something.”
I took it as a compliment, of sorts.
“The clock is ticking, and as of now, we are keeping score.”
–Michael Ironside, as “Jester,” in Top Gun
Making the initial cut was only the first phase of the battle. The team had 11 – 14 cops so we could have some depth to the bench. It was not unusual to lose a few to injuries along the way (people had actually broken their necks and died on the obstacle course). Of the 12 or so who got onto the team, only 7 would eventually make the Primary team that competed at Vandenberg. The others would be Alternates, second-string benchwarmers. I wound up as an Alternate my first (’86 – ’87) season.
The Primary team wasn’t selected till some months into the training season, so in essence, every single day was a tryout.
“The only easy day was yesterday.”
–Navy SEAL motto
It was always very physical, but the first several weeks were one continuous “smoke session.” Or maybe it all was, and our bodies simply became inured to the stresses.
Like lugging that log around. SMSgt Ferguson had us work out with a telephone pole.
Yes, an actual telephone pole.
Great team building exercise, but gets old mighty fast. It was a little more bearable (no pun intended) for me because, as a much younger man, I’d read a book about Darby’s Rangers in WWII. They’d trained with logs, too. That was the sort of conditioning I’d signed up to get, but was all too rare in the modern military–even in the Security Police, the Infantry of the Air Force.
SMSgt Ferguson also had us run “the Guantlet.” We were to make it from Point A to Point B while two NCOs, who competed in trap & skeet, shot at us with MILES lasers (see below for more about MILES).
Those two laid waste to us.
Before the Gauntlet, we called them the Ducks Unlimited Liberation Front. Afterward, we called them the Two-Shot Terrorists. No matter how tiny the opportunity we gave them, they swung through our movement like we were clay birds, and popped off two rounds of M200 (5.56mm blank) ammo quicker than you could blink. They locked us out every time.
When we fought against other, conventionally trained SPs (who had mostly just shot at static targets with live fire), we did OK. But against trap shooters who were accustomed to shooting at rapidly moving targets, we got massacred. The flip side of that coin is, if YOU want to get good at fighting, you have to train against living, breathing targets who do not want to be shot. Prior to MILES, marking cartridges (paint pellets), and Airsoft, the only practical way to do that was by hunting animals, although I had experimented with primer powered cotton balls out of revolvers in the first half of the 1980s.
We learned early that when you’re exposed in the open, “Speed is Life.” Like basketball, it was an endless series of short sprints. Unlike basketball, we did it in body armor, weighed down by ammo and other gear. As time went along, we got a lot harder to kill. But it was exhausting.
I remember coming to my girlfriend Susan’s house after a hard day of training, pretty early on in the season.
I was young and very fit, but I could barely move. We’d been doing PT and immediate action drills outside in the snow all day. She made me a bowl of soup to warm me up. I put my spoon in the bowl, filled it, and tried to raise it to my lips.
Halfway there, the spoon slowed and then stopped. It felt like it weighed 50 pounds.
I held it there, trembling, but I just couldn’t do it with one hand. I reached our with my other hand, grabbed my “strong” hand, and between the two of them, was able to get the spoon to my mouth.
The OA team trained 6 days a week. When it was time to go to work, Sue would send me out the door with a cheerful “Have a good day. Kill all the terrorists.”
A typical day would start with about 2 hours of physical conditioning. Then we’d head to the range and shoot till lunch.
Ferg brought in dietitians to brief us on nutrition, and implemented stricter dietary controls than in previous years. We were, in essence, professional athletes. We couldn’t smoke (not an issue for me) or drink booze, either.
The season wouldn’t officially end till we crossed the obstacle course finish line at Vandenberg, months later. At the culmination of the ’87 season, Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Aubrey C, whose dad had flown with mine in Southeast Asia, requested that someone be waiting at the finish line with a hot dog, a lit cigarette, and a beer.
I was always too busy puking after the O’ course for much of that, at least till after I’d sucked some O2 at the ambulance they had at the finish line.
TSgt Craig S, who was on the OA team during the ’89 season, came to us a heavy smoker. “I’ll fix that,” SMSgt Ferguson told him. And it worked. Craig hasn’t touched a cigarette since then, even after SCUD attacks in Saudi, where he was my squad leader.
After lunch, during a typical training day, we’d spend the rest of the afternoon doing MILES exercises.
The Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES, was a way to do legitimate Force-on-Force HTE (Human Target Engagement) training, decades before Simunition FX and UTM marking cartridges became available as HTE training tools. Real opponents don’t just stand there like a cardboard target does. Any serious student of the craft simply MUST train force on force against living breathing targets that don’t want to get shot, and more importantly, shoot back.
Each participant wore a MILES harness in place of his or her load bearing equipment, or LBE. (The Security Police career field had been opened to women in the 1970s, and there were a handful in the 90th SPG; Kristine E. was on the OS team my first year.) The harness was covered, front and back, with several dome shaped laser receptors. There was also a crown-like band of miles receptors that fitted around your helmet.
An infrared laser bolted to the barrel of your rifle or MG. It had a microphone in it, activating the laser each time it heard a blank being fired. It shot two beams: a laser and a cone.
If someone hit one of your receptors with their laser, your system would “lock you out.” You’d know because a speaker on your left shoulder would immediately begin broadcasting a loud, high pitched, uninterrupted squeal.
I understand there have been psychological tests that determined the sound of a crying baby is the most irritating noise known to mankind.
I changed plenty of diapers raising my kids. The squawk emitted by your locked out MILES harness is FAR more irritating than a crying baby.
Unlike a crying baby, it was always easy to make it stop. All you had to do was to take the enabling key out of the laser transmitter on your weapon, insert it in its receptacle in your harness, and give it a quarter turn. We also, as a matter of protocol, took off our helmets and sat on them. That way anybody too far away to hear your gear go off would see that your were no longer among the “living” players in the exercise.
If you got hit by the cone, instead of the pencil-thin laser beam, your harness only beeped. That meant real bullets would’ve been cracking past you close enough to feel the breeze of their passing. If you were getting beeped a lot, you wound up doing what SMSgt Ferguson referred to as “the Beirut two-step.”
Downsides of MILES
MILES had some drawbacks. Photons didn’t penetrate brush as well as real bullets, but they bounced off of truck mirrors and even penetrated bullet resistant armored car glass. Oft times we would get into a “Tom and Jerry” chasing each other around a bush, firing at each other repeatedly 20 feet from one another without effect, before some photons would finally slide through a gap between the branches to lock the other guy out.
Also, with MILES, you were either fully functional, or dead. In reality, many people who are shot don’t stop fighting immediately. My limited experience wth gun battles is that there is a very messy period of dealing with the wounded afterward, something that rarely came up during our OA training.
When we went to the Volant Scorpion Airbase Ground Defense evaluation in Little Rock, the cadre would throw a casualty card on each person who had been locked out by MILES. Sometimes they were dead, but usually they required some kind of first aid. The biggest, heaviest guy on that deployment–his name, Swoboda, even sounded heavy–naturally was “neck injury, litter urgent.” We had to haul him back to camp while fighting a running gun battle with the OpFor Aggressors.
Each of the three MILES components was powered by a single 9V battery–one in the laser transmitter, one in the harness, and one on the back of your helmet. 9Vs were feeble by modern standards, but at least they were easy to field test with a tongue, to see if they still had any juice.
If you wanted to, you could cheat with MILES by simply leaving the battery out of your harness. But what would be the fun in that? The fact that you could get shot is what made it so challenging. We were all in it for the challenge, to test ourselves, or we wouldn’t have tried out in the first place.
Surely, though, there was somebody somewhere who would be more interested in winning than in becoming harder to kill. Fortunately, there was an easy fix for that. Observer / Controllers could, and frequently did, test your system with their “god gun:” a laser transmitter with a pistol grip and a trigger. The god gun could also resurrect you by resetting your gear.
SMSgt Ferguson carried a god gun. He also carried a bullhorn. I called him, or should I say his amplified voice, “the Bullhorn god.”
Messages from the Bullhorn god
Sometimes, you would get a personal message from on high. If we were doing 3 – 5 second rushes (“I’m up, he sees me, I’m down”) and I let my feet fly up in the air when I plopped back down on my belly, the Bullhorn god said “Don’t get sloppy, George.” Yes, there is a right way to do it, and if your feet fly up like a flag, the bad guy sees just where you are. Or worse, the terrorist catches you in the ankles with the bullets you ducked as you went down.
Of course, the bullhorn was only for when he was far away. SMSgt Ferguson wasn’t afraid to get hands on if necessary. I’d be “low” crawling halfway between a low crawl and a high crawl, and SMSgt Ferguson would set me strait. Stepping on my helmet, he’d say “Low crawl means low.”
Some few of you might think that was a “dick” move, but I loved it. I’d expected that kind of training when I joined the military, but only rarely got it.
Besides, he was right.
If you weren’t bulldozing dirt with the down side of your helmet, you weren’t really low crawling. Which meant you were more likely to get that helmet–and it’s precious contents–perforated by bullets.
You don’t always, or even usually, have to low crawl. Most fights are in urban (or at least built-up) areas, and are up close. Some soldiers at Ft Hood got shot in the back trying to crawl out of the building on 05 Nov 2009; they’d have moved much faster if they’d taken their chances on their feet (see Shooting and Scooting on Your Feet below). But if you DO need to low crawl, it needs to be low.
Sometimes, the Bullhorn god would make a general public service announcement. Like how much time you had left before you failed to achieve the objective.
Our exercises usually had a temporal limit. This was partially to make the best use of our day, but mainly to force us to think on our feet and solve problems under pressure.
For example, SMSgt Ferguson would say “You need to keep the Resource out of enemy hands for the next 20 minutes, starting,” (he’d play with his watch like a WWII bomber crew getting a time hack), “NOW.”
Or, “Bad guys have seized that LF,” referring to Uniform 1, the on-base launch facility the missile maintenance crews trained on. “There is, or was, a maintenance crew on site, and the FSC (Flight Security Controller) has not heard from the SET (Security Escort) team since they reported being attacked 8 minutes ago. You have 32 minutes to regain control of the entire site, before the B-plug is all the way down, allowing access to the Resources.”
The 90th Strategic Missile Wing had plenty of those Resources. It was the most powerfully destructive combat unit in the history of man. We had three squadrons of Minuteman IIIs, each capable of carrying three MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles). The fourth squadron had Peacekeeper missiles, each capable of launching 10 MIRVs. Do the math:
- Each squadron had five flights, which is to say, 5 launch control facilities (LCFs).
- Each LCF controlled 10 ICBMs, which meant 50 missiles per squadron.
- 3 squadrons of 50 missiles x 3 MIRVs each = 450 hydrogen bombs, plus the squadron of Peacekeepers with 500, meant that all day every day, and all night too, the “Mighty 90” had 950 thermonuclear devices ready to lay waste to our nation’s enemies, just about anywhere on the planet.
And that was just our wing. They had recently stood down the Titan wings–older, liquid fueled missiles were accidents waiting to happen–but there were still 5 other ICBM wings with more stable, solid fueled Minuteman ICBMs.
Not to mention the Navy’s Boomers (SLBM launching subs), and Tomahawks.
AF GLCMs (ground-launched cruise missiles) and Army Pershing Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles really terrified Andropov and Gorbachev, so they were going away (see INF below).
As the 90th Security Police Group Olympic Arena team, we were only interested in the 3 or 10 Resources in our AOR–area of responsibly–that had, for exercise purposes, fallen (or were about to fall) into the wrong hands.
As the clock wound down, we would get reminders from the Bullhorn god.
But the Bullhorn god’s most dreaded announcement was:
“Go get me some iron.”
Crow Creek had, over the eons, cut a small riparian valley across the middle of what would become FE Warren AFB. A set of railroad tracks ran along a bluff on the north side of that little valley. If we totally screwed up an exercise, we had to get SMSgt Ferguson some iron by running up the ridge, touching our rifle barrels to the tracks, and running back.
One time, we were a little lackadaisical about putting on our gear. Might’ve been a Monday morning. As I may have mentioned, SMSgt Ferguson didn’t like wasting a minute of our precious training time, so we spent the next hour or so practicing:
- Putting on our gear.
- Getting some iron.
- Taking off our gear.
- Repeating the previous three steps.
There may have been some pushups, that perennial character building tool, thrown in between steps 3 and 4 for good measure.
We always moved with a purpose after that.
To this day, when I catch myself dilly-dallying too long on any given task, I still hear the Bullhorn god’s voice, saying “Don’t make a career move out of it.”
SMSgt Ferguson was tough. The toughest I ever worked for.
“I don’t mind being called tough, since I find in this racket it’s the tough guys who lead the survivors.”
–Curtiss E. LeMay, the definitive SAC Warrior, when he led the 305th Bomb Group (from the front, in the lead B-17) during WWII
But SMSgt Ferguson was not some heartless bastard, although I must’ve thought so once or twice when we were doing wind sprints.
Far from it.
He cared more for us than just about every other leader I ever worked for, before or since. You could tell that by the way he looked out for us. The other way I know he cared was when one of us got hurt.
Like most coaches, he was apt to tell you to “run it off” if you were in mild pain. Sometimes, one of us would get seriously injured (if it’s between you and a log on the O’ course, the log will win). SMSgt Ferguson usually maintained a tough exterior. He was far from humorless–he often made sardonic jokes and cracked a smile–but usually he wore a military leader’s poker face. When Brad fell off an embankment during an exercise and broke his leg, though, Ferg looked like a little boy whose puppy had just been run over.
SMSgt Ferguson was a huge believer in positive reinforcement. There’s a common misperception out there, among trainers without a background in behavioral science, that “positive reinforcement” means some kind of yummy reward.
Not necessarily so.
In BF Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, “positive reinforcement” means something happens as an immediate and direct result of a behavior. For behaviors we want to encourage, it’s a good thing. But if the behavior is something we want to eliminate from our habits, the positive reinforcement can be a very unwanted consequence. (In contrast, negative reinforcement is when something does NOT happen as a result of your actions; it can be something you wanted to happen or something you dread.)
SMSgt Ferguson’s positive reinforcement methods stay with me to this day. Even now, when I’m dry practicing, if I press the trigger a little too soon, before my sights are exactly where they need to be, or if I forget to wipe off the safety doing a left-side snap (presentation of the rifle from the left shoulder), I’ll drop for a few pushups. Not for the workout (which I can certainly use), but to program my brain not to do that.
We often trained on the obstacle course at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico. The O’ course was a few miles from our billets on the main base. Once, we ran through that O’course late in the afternoon of the day before our weekly day off (the Lord rested on the seventh day, and so did we). SMSgt Ferguson loaded up our gear in the van, but not us. “See you topside,” he said, meaning back at the cantonment area of the main base. We could jog back or run back, but the sooner we got back, the sooner we could start our one-day weekend.
Running–fast–is one key to staying alive when bullets are flying. We ran often. The team would run 5Ks and 10Ks and participate in relay races around FE Warren’s gigantic parade field.
Occasionally, we’d run out to and around the base lakes, which were on the north side of FE Warren.
Once, we were doing a formation run out to the lakes in all our gear (helmet, flak vest, LBE, magazines, ammo, rifle, gas mask, combat boots, etc). We were quite used to running in our gear. SMSgt Ferguson drove out there ahead of us in his pickup truck, and was waiting with his bullhorn when we got to the lakes. As we turned to go around the lakes, he raised the bullhorn to his lips.
“Gas, gas, gas.”
In the military, when a command is really important, you repeat it three times. “Eject! Eject! Eject!” or “Breach, breach, breach” (the latter meaning “bust the door in”).
“Gas, gas, gas” means there is a known or suspected (or, for training purposes, simulated) chemical contaminant in the air, so we had to don our M17 gas masks. Putting on the mask was a two-hand job, and it had to go on under your helmet, so we took turns handing off our helmets and rifles to the teammates next to us, while we ran, till we all had everything on.
Cheyenne, Wyoming is over a mile up, at 6000′ above sea level. The air was rare enough already. We were all quite accustomed to that as well. But then to draw what little there was through a mask filter as we ran felt like you were fighting for every single O2 molecule. (3 years later, when we were dodging Saddam’s nightly SCUD attacks in Saudi, I was grateful for every moment I’d had to grow accustomed to working out in that mask during the Ferguson Weight Loss Program.)
After we wound our way around the lakes, and prepared to run back to the main base, SMSgt Ferguson was still standing there.
“All clear,” spake the Bullhorn god.
In war, “All clear” is the signal meaning the electronic sniffers have tested the air. The litmus paper has not turned colors, and we cannot detect any lethal chemicals in the area. When the Bullhorn god said it, that meant we could take off our masks, a procedure requiring almost as much teamwork and coordination while running as putting the masks on had.
Only now, as we ran, it felt like somebody was standing over you with an air compressor forcing air into your lungs. Man, it felt good.
It was totally spontaneous. One of us sang out “Sooome tiiimes . . .” and everybody else chimed in:
” . . . all I need is the air that I breathe . . .”
To me, at the time, it sounded better than the Hollies’ rendition which had been on the charts in ’74.
Afterward, SMSgt Ferguson told us the joke about a Marine who was beating his head against a brick wall. When his Gunny asked him why, he replied, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
Speaking of covers of hit songs, the 90th Strategic Missile Wing had an awesome missileer garage band named “the Warble Tones,” after a particular noise they might hear in the launch capsule. I’m guessing they did a lot of practicing down in that hole, because they were really good. Their cover of “Can’t You See” was, to my ears, better than Marshall Tucker’s.
When we were at the competition, at Vandenberg AFB in California, the Warble Tones could be heard some evenings at the Officer’s Club. They had a T-shirt, “Warble Tones World Tour ’89,” with the outlines of Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and California on it.
The War Room
SMSgt Ferguson was not some mindless brute. Far from it. He studied military history voraciously.
His father had fought in the Pacific during WWII, and left him two Japanese katanas. One still had the hilt, grip and pommel. The other had only the the blade and the tang, the extension of the blade which would have fit into the handle, if it still had one. He wound up giving the latter to a friend. Subsequent research revealed that his complete sword was produced during WWII, but the one he gave away turned out to have been passed down through a Samurai family for hundreds of years (if I recall correctly, that one has since been returned to the Japanese family).
The Cop Shop, or headquarters, of the 90th Security Police Group was in building 34, the old base hospital built in the early 1900s. It was full of old Buffalo Soldier memorabilia from when Warren (as Ft DA Russell) had been a cavalry post. SMSgt Ferguson got us a room in the basement of the Cop Shop, just down the hall from the armory. It was our team’s ready room and headquarters. We called it the War Room.
Ferguson believed that a warrior must have an appreciation of terrain. The war room had a sand table–a wide, shallow, open topped wooden box at about waist level, full of sand, with toy soldiers, and toy tanks (we worked extensively with an armored car the USAF called a Peacekeeper; not to be confused with the MX “Peacekeeper” missile, or with SPs, who were often referred to in USAF literature as “Peacekeepers”). We used the sand table to plan, and to learn about how terrain affects our responses to situations.
Decades later, a former infantry / retired police officer named Brian K was running us through church security scenarios. The Army MOS, military occupational specialty designator, for basic infantry is 11B, pronounced “Eleven Bravo.” Or, in the gallows humor of a grunt, “eleven bullet stopper.” Brian usually had direct answers to students’ questions, but every once in a while, he would respond with a question.
“Do you want the cop answer, or the eleven bullet stopper answer?” Brian would ask. “A cop would say ‘It depends on the totality of circumstances.’ A grunt would say, ‘It depends on the situation and the terrain, sir‘.”
SMSgt Ferguson’s appreciation for terrain has stuck with me all these years. As a student and teacher of officer survival and personal protection, I often visit locations where gun battles have taken place. My wife calls it my “Morbid Tour of Death.” I’ve found I have a much better idea of what went on, and why, if I can just look at the ground it happened on (or sometimes, the room it happened in), and when possible, interview the people who were there when it went down.
In the OA War Room, we watched VHS tapes of previous competitions, or military exercises, or real combat where such footage was available. Modern students of weaponcraft don’t appreciate that the advent of the cell phone camera (and police dash / body cams) has given them exponentially more video of actual gun battles to learn from than we had back then.
We also trained on radios, security checklist procedures, practiced handcuffing, and got briefings from various subject matter experts. SMSgt Ferguson himself would often lead the lecture. We were encouraged to pipe in with our own perspectives on lessons learned, or better ways to do things.
From notes I took on 30 Jan 1989, entitled “Ferg on . . . NCO duties vis-a-vis Leadership, Followership, and Teamship:”
- If in charge, be in charge
- Take the initiative
- If you step on your dick [possibly my own shorthand; whether Fergy said it or not, it means “make a mistake“], admit it
- Always do your best, and set the example [here, in my notes, I referenced a Rommel quote below, that I’d learned as a Doolie at the Air Force Academy; it was my favorite of all the aphorisms on leadership we’d had to memorize]
- Always look for the better way [here, I referenced another SMSgt, Gerald A. Norton, who’d done his best to mold me into something Uncle Sam could use; he always told us to Work smarter, not harder. I also referenced the “First Rule of Fencing” I’d learned from my USAFA Fencing coach: If it doesn’t work, try something else.
- Don’t be afraid to correct.
“Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t, in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”
–Field Marshall Erwin Rommel
- When the exercise is underway, do what [you are] told; save debate for later.
- If you know something has to be done, do it–don’t wait till later. [Decades afterward, when I was training with our SRT (SWAT) team, we called that “Initiative Based Tactics“–asking yourself what needs to be done, but isn’t being done yet, and doing it.]
- The team is everything.
- The team has / will develop its own personality; [but] it is NOT a democracy. [These days, we call that personality an “organizational culture“]
- Win or nothing.
That last wasn’t just for the Olympic Arena competition, and it wan’t just Alpha Male competitiveness. It’s a common theme in the military, where the fate of your troops, or perhaps even your nation, hangs in the balance.
When I went through Basic Cadet Training (abbreviated BCT, but pronounced “Beast”) in Colorado Springs, my squadron (Aggressors) took an early lead, earning honors for best squadron several weeks in a row. Then, one week, we took second place. I didn’t think second out of 10 squadrons was too bad.
Boy, was I wrong.
Our cadre chewed us out for an hour. “There is no ‘second place’ in the Fulda Gap. Do you understand?!?“
The Fulda Gap, for those of you youngsters who never heard of it, is a German plain, prime tank terrain through which the Soviet armored spearhead was expected to thrust into West Germany.
The conventional war scenario in Western Europe revolves around Warsaw Pact armored formations. Outnumbered and outgunned on the ground, NATO must stem a communist advance with tactical airpower: airplanes and helos equipped to kill tanks. In the midst of a continuing battle for general air superiority, tactical aircraft will fight at low level, drawn to battle by the approach of enemy armor. Toss in mobile flak and SAM batteries, plus shoulder-mounted antiaircraft weapons, and you’re in for a real slugfest: high intensity, short duration, extremely lethal.
–A Barrett Tillman quote I wrote down in 1984
The Wisdom of the Saints
SMSgt Ferguson was huge on military aphorisms. Apart from maps, the walls of the war room were decorated with framed quotes by generals such as Patton, and theorists like Sun Tsu and Clausewitz.
Ferg had a sense of humor, too. One of the quotes was
“War, children, is just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.”
–Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
We actually had a hard time driving nails into the walls of the War Room. Turned out they were lined with lead; it had been the hospital X-ray room back in the day.
Was OA Worth It?
Olympic Arena wasn’t just about raising morale, although, as team members, we were authorized to wear the Missile Comp patch on our uniforms thereafter. I was personally quite proud of my time on the teams (and still am, in case you haven’t noticed).
Nor was OA just an excuse for colonels to get together with colonels from other bases that they’d been stationed together with as lieutenants–although that did happen. There was a great deal of revelry, fanfare, and team building with other bases at Missile Comp.
Disparity of Resource Allotment
The time, treasure (read that ammo) and effort they invested in training 11 – 14 of our group’s 1100 cops might have been spread around more. The disparity became embarrassingly obvious when some (not even all) of our team were tasked with being OpFor (sort of like Richard Marcinco’s Red Cell) for a WSA Response Force exercise.
The WSA was the base’s nuclear weapons storage area. It had a fairly robust Response Force on hand, with vehicle mounted patrols outside and inside the wire, a sensor operator in a centrally located tower, a manned, hardened entry control point, and two fire teams, capable of sallying forth in armored vehicles with machine guns and grenade launchers, protected in a hardened facility. Other cops on base could be called upon to respond as a mobile reserve.
During the exercise, it took the handful of OA competitors only a few minutes to wipe out virtually the entire WSA response force.
Were they super heroes with magical powers? No. They had simply trained for combat, hard, 6 days a week, for half a year. And they’d been taught by the best.
The first time I’d been shot during a MILES exercise was only a few seconds into an ambush, during RECONDO training in ’83. I never saw the guy that got me (they were all guys, then). I sat on my helmet and contemplated the loss. I have only one life to lose, and it can be over that quick. I took death seriously, one might even say deadly seriously, for someone my age.
During a Command and Control exercise my sophomore year the Air Force Academy, I’d chosen to send an A-10 to attack a pair of T-72 tanks that were about to overrun an American platoon, instead of having the A-10 first clear the way by taking out a ZSU-23/4 antiaircraft cannon. We rolled the dice and the A-10 got shot down.
I had to draft a letter to the A-10 pilot’s wife explaining what happened, forcing me to think about the responsibilities of combat leadership.
The Captain running the exercise explained that my intentions of rescuing the hard pressed platoon with CAS (close air support) may have been noble, but I wasn’t just gambling with another man’s life by not waiting to secure a safe environment for our birds to fly over. Not only were the A-10 pilot’s kid’s going to grow up fatherless, but now our side was down one more precious aircraft a very hard to replace pilot, for the duration. And all the platoons they might have rescued in the future were going to suffer for it.
Command decisions can have tsunami sized ripples.
But OA, years later, was not a real conflict. It was a competition. The worse that would happen was that some Colonel might not get to put the Blanchard Trophy in his office. If the time allotted for the exercise was winding down, one might get in the habit of using his troops, including himself, as pawns, sacrificial lambs, as diversions, so one of the other team mates could re-secure the Resource.
While I never thought of my troops as expendable during subsequent wartime deployments, I do remember running down a road that real bullets had just bounced off of, during a gun battle in South Texas. I was thinking, quite clearly, This is stupid. We’re not doing 3 – 5 second rushes. Any second now, I’m going to get shot.
The real bullets did not deter me, even though I knew better than to do it the way we were doing it. Our people in the kill zone needed help, and we were racing there as fast as we could. I’d been shot so many times by MILES lasers, it no longer concerned me all that much.
Tactics Laboratory and Dissemination of Lessons Learned
Ostensibly, Missile Comp was supposed to be a laboratory for testing new and better ways to accomplish our mission. For the cops, that meant small unit tactics. The OA competitors would then return to each of the squadrons they’d been drawn from, and (theoretically, at least) put those lessons learned into action.
In that, we had mixed results:
Exposed Turrets are Deathtraps
For example, we learned early on that an M60 machine gunner in the turret of a Peacekeeper armored car might be fine below the rib cage, but the rest of him or her was going to look like Swiss cheese within seconds of enemy contact. The turret had some cover in front, and a little from the hatch in back, but in the real world threats are all the way around, and the gunner is really exposed from the sides.
After OA, when I went to the WSA as a fire team leader, I had my machine gunners place their “hogs” in racks inside the Peacekeeper armored cars, rather than in the pintle mount on top. I figured if the bad guys were really far away, in only one direction, it would be easier to put it up there than it would be to pull the gun (and the gunner’s brains) out of the turret, if that were not the case.
My plan, instead, was to use the armored vehicle as a bullet resistant taxi, to get the gunner and his or her assistant to a useful position of cover (we had bunkers at various points around the WSA). I got that plan directly from the endless hours SMSgt Ferguson had us working with the Peacekeeper. It became our flight’s standard practice in the WSA for short while.
Then, one day when I wasn’t there to explain why, a new group commander inspected the WSA’s Alert Fire Team Facility and was unimpressed that the guns were not up in the turrets. Back up they went.
Something similar occurred when I went to Saudi for Ops Desert Shield and Storm. Command insisted that the M60s be in the turrets of our unarmored Hummers. I brought up our OA experience, that practically every single time the gunner stuck his head up out of that turret he got it shot off, to my chain of command. They listened patiently and then directed me to put the gun up there anyway. I did, but then instructed “T Bone,” my M60 gunner, not to go up there and use it unless I specifically ordered him to. T Bone was to grab our compliment of LAW rockets instead.
I think part of the reason the command types liked the guns up in the turrets was because it looks bad-ass. Let’s face it: security is more about looking prepared (for deterrence) than it is about being prepared (for fighting). Also, a gunner (or tank commander) who sticks their head up & out of that turret can also relay better SA, situational awareness, to their buttoned up crew mates (that is, for as long as they are alive). But the main reason, I think–and perhaps I’m being cynical here–is that the commanders of the 1980s had grown up watching The Rat Patrol.
We didn’t pay in blood to ignore those lessons about turrets lacking wrap-around protection till Afghanistan and Iraq. Then we paid quite heavily to relearn them. By then most of the guys I’d learned them with had retired.
In Ops Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, body armor had improved from mere fragment protection (the flak vests we wore in the 1980s) to the Interceptor vest, which could stop real (pistol) bullets. The heavy ceramic plates of the Interceptor could stop rifle bullets fired from directly in front or behind, but were useless for rifle threats from the flanks.
LCF Recapture Primer
When I went to the Missile Field after the ’89 season, I became a Flight Security Controller (FSC). My office was in the corner of the topside support building. A door in my office led to the elevator shaft (and stairs) down to the capsule. That made me the Missile Crew’s last line of defense, other than the blast door to their capsule and the .38s they wore over their sweatsuits (you didn’t think they actually wore those pressed combat crew uniforms after they got down there, did you?).
It occurred to me what a nightmare it would be to try take back a launch control capsule should I (or another FSC) fail to keep it safe–even if the blast door was somehow wedged open (not likely; the door weighed several tons).
I wrote a booklet I called “LCF Recapture Primer.” It was nobody’s official doctrine, but it was how I would do it, if I were ever tasked with such an onerous mission. The tactics I espoused were based on experiences I had gleaned from my seasons on the OA teams. My primer was given the UCNI (unclassified controlled nuclear information) designation. Through that pamphlet, some of my training from OA was made available to the other SPs, at least in limited production hard copy form. Our computers weren’t networked yet.
Typical Engagement Distances
One other lesson I got from OA was about proximity. We rarely engaged anyone past 100 meters. Usually, it was more like 10 – 30. Part of that might have come from our exercise design, but in reality you have difficulty identifying friend from foe at any great distance.
On the open plains of Nebraska you might “dust off” the surface of a Launch Facility (LF) with rifle and machine gun fire from a distance. Indeed, owing to the lack of hard cover on top of most LFs and LCFs, SMSgt Ferguson encouraged us to “Defend the site from off the site,” especially in an L-shaped dispersion permitting fields of fire that interlocked at a 90 degree angle to prevent cross-fire.
The sides of the L needed to be perpendicular to each other, but their location was based on terrain, and did not need to be parallel to the rectangular fence around the site.
But in an LF recapture situation, sooner or later you were going to have to close with the site to secure it, clear dead spaces (mainly south of the launcher lid) and check the underground equipment room. You couldn’t even dust it off if there were wounded good guys on the site, mixed in with the terrorists.
It Sucks to be a Hostage
Perhaps surprisingly, our security instructions stated (I’m paraphrasing here) that if hostages were taken in an effort to gain access to nuclear weapons, the lives of the hostages WOULD be considered.
But that sentence didn’t end there . . .
“. . . considered” was followed by a semi colon, and the word “however,” with a comma. The rest of that sentence basically said that nothing, but nothing, and nobody, hostage or not, was going to stop us from keeping or regaining control of a Resource.
The hostage policy never mattered, that I’m aware of.
In the late 1980s, President Reagan’s strategy worked, the Soviet economy collapsed, and starving ex-Soviet nuclear technicians were hocking nuclear suitcase bombs. Why go to all the effort, expense, and low likelihood of success stealing a nuke from under tons of concrete in Nebraska, when you you can simply buy one off the black market in the Caucasus?
The prevalence of close range combat we experienced in Olympic Arena’s daily MILES exercises was also experienced by other warriors on other ground. I understand engagement distances in Mosul were similar. The Thunder Ranch Urban Rifle curriculum, Trident Concepts’ Combative Carbine, and other tactical courses for AR pattern rifles and carbines now emphasize the “zero to one hundred meter” realm over long-distance sniping. They also incorporated a lot of standing snaps (see Shooting and Scooting on Your Feet below).
It’s the Law of Inevitable Discovery: like the wheel, it is such a fundamental concept, it was bound to be discovered by somebody sooner or later, and was probably figured out in several different places at about the same time. Perhaps it’s been discovered over and over again in the last dozen wars or so.
Shooting and Scooting on Your Feet
A corollary to the closer engagement distances was the fact that, more often than not, we shot on our feet, rather than kneeling or prone. Sometimes we used what ‘Nam vets called the “Rice Paddy Squat,” or something between standing and squatting. Sometimes we’d be prone over a log or kneeling around a vehicle. But often, when we shot, we were standing (between short sprints).
For example, at Kirtland AFB, where we did a lot of our training for OA, I was making my way down an arroyo (wash) when I noticed a boot sticking out of a bush on the top of the bank. The boot was attached to “Troll,” a fellow OA competitor who was on the other side in that exercise. I scrambled to the shelter of the bank, and fired “Paullus,” my M16, over the lip of the arroyo from a standing position. I did not rest or brace my elbows or the rifle on anything. Troll fired back with a few bursts before scampering off. It wasn’t till I lowered my weapon, and my arms, that I realized he’d dumped some hot brass down my sleeve.
While that somewhat replicated firing from a foxhole type position, most of the time we fired standing around, rather than over, this or that because we were too busy moving, or we had just moved and were about to move again. Mostly, we shot off-hand, which is to say, from the shoulder but not bracing or resting the rifle on anything. We didn’t need to, because the engagement distances were so close.
Yet all the live fire rifle courses I shot in the military, throughout the last two decades of the 20th Century, were from prone, kneeling, or at most, standing from inside a foxhole or otherwise braced across the top of some sort of cover.
Live-fire targets were from 50 meters to 300 meters or more (sometimes we shot at tiny “scaled” silhouettes representing targets at that distance, but placed at 25 meters). When the targets are that far away, only an idiot would not rest the rifle on something for stability.
All our live fire courses were based on the premise that you are defending a perimeter from a distant enemy who can be seen from very far off as he approaches. It’s true that one of my jobs in Saudi was to check up on “Augie Doggies” (augmentees), airmen from other specialties who were detailed to the SPs to assist with perimeter security of cantonment areas. I also pulled rooftop observer / countersniper duty (without a scope). But if sappers had breached the wire, or if, as was often the case in later wars, insurgents were already on base in the form of a Green on Blue, running and gunning would be the order of the day.
The USAF didn’t incorporate snapping the rifle to a shouldered position and firing off-hand from a standing position at close range (less than 25 meters), into even a tiny portion of the qualification course for rifle, till 2004 or so.
We learned that was a useful skill in OA force on force exercises in 1987 – 89. But the AF as a whole didn’t learn it till Afghanistan and Iraq, in the next century.
Getting off the X
Likewise with the dynamic movement required in close range gunfights. There is some (very little) left and right movement in the Rifle AFQC now (or at least, was, when I retired in 2014). But it is far from dynamic.
We learned quickly, as OA competitors, that “speed [off the X] is life.” I re-learned that against Airsoft in Suarez Close Range Gunfighting courses decades later. I teach it to my students today.
When I went through FLETC in 1996, there was a “Cover Course.” The instructor stood behind a plexiglass door and shot paint pellets at you through a hole in the door. You started by knocking on the door, then sprinted between various items of cover, and tried not to get shot along the way. You were free to shoot back, although the instructor’s plexiglass shield was impervious to your marking cartridges. It reminded me a lot of the skills we’d picked up running SMSgt Ferguson’s Gauntlet.
Not too long ago, I was training one of our Heloderm RSOs, an infantryman who had served in Iraq and is now, ironically, in the USAF Security Forces (the SPs were re-named SF in the 1990s). He moved with a purpose between different sets of cover. As I looked at him sprinting, I remembered my days under SMSgt Ferguson’s tutelage, and thought “I used to be that hard to kill.”
DiGiacomo – Taylor Drills
The two-person retrograde leapfrog OA teammates J. DiGiacomo and E. Taylor repeatedly decimated my fire teams with during OA was so effective, I teach it to my pistol, rifle, and shotgun students to this very day.
“Like it or not, the great and inescapable task of our epoch is not to end the Cold War but to win it.”
–Eugene Lyons, quoted by Jeff Cooper in 1989
On 08 December 1987, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the first reduction in nuclear arms in world history.
Despite all the peacenik protests against the deployment of Pershing missiles and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) to Europe, they had worked spectacularly to get the USSR, which had deployed IRBMs (and far more of them) to Europe long before we did, to remove theirs when we removed ours.
When I told my smart-aleck son that unilateral disarmament never works, and that Reagan was only able to achieve that from a position of strength, he replied that technically, that wasn’t true.
“Truman destroyed all of our nuclear weapons,” he said, “and in so-doing, reduced the entire world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons to zero.”
The Only Use of Nuclear Weapons–So Far (knock on wood)
The 509th Composite Group had indeed destroyed the sum total of the US nuclear arsenal, and therefore the world’s, when it dropped our only two existing A-bombs on Japan, forcing the Emperor to capitulate.
Some have argued, citing statistics about the balance of power in 1945, that Japan was on its last legs, and that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary.
However, a people are only beaten when THEY feel they are beaten. Experience as we approached the Japanese home islands showed that the very concept of surrender was hateful to the Japanese, not only in matters of pride, but in their spiritual core. In preparation for the invasion of Japan, my father was shown films of Japanese officers on accompanied tours in the Pacific islands cutting their wives and children in half with swords, then holding grenades to their own heads, or jumping off of cliffs, rather than surrendering.
My friend Bob’s, and my other friend Jay’s, mothers were both adolescents living in different parts of Japan in 1945. Their government issued them and their siblings spears, while encouraging all Japanese citizens to take at least one, and preferably two or more, American GIs with each of them. ALL Japanese citizens, regardless of age or gender, where expected to fight to the death for every inch of Japanese soil.
In other words, forcing the surrender of Japan by dropping those bombs SAVED MANY, MANY THOUSANDS OF JAPANESE LIVES–probably the vast majority of them, in the long run. The alternative, invading the Japanese home islands, would have been very costly for us, but it would have been, for all practical purposes, an extinction level event for the Japanese and their magnificent culture.
These morbid facts are somehow overlooked every August in the annual media hand-wringing over the barbarity which was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What might bring some perspective, but is nearly forgotten, is the equally barbarous WWII firebombing of Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kagoshima, (Dresden, Hamburg, et al), which had failed to convince “the big 6,” Japan’s ruling junta, to accept the Potsdam Declaration’s request for surrender. All of which followed the barbarous bombings of London and Pearl Harbor, and the destruction of Nanking, Singapore, Leningrad, Stalingrad, et al.
On a more selfish note, the military bean counters had the math pretty well down by the end of World War II. My father was scheduled to participate in the invasion of the Japanese home islands, and his outfit was predicted to suffer over 400% casualties before the end of the war.
In other words, if Harry Truman, a president who (unlike some) had actually served in combat, hadn’t ordered Paul Tibbets and his boys to drop those bombs, I probably would never have existed to write this. Neither would SMSgt Ferguson, whose father was already in the Pacific. Nor would my 5 brothers and sisters, along with hundreds of thousands, probably over a million, of other Americans.
I never thought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki from that perspective, till I read George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (p. 220):
. . . in which case my three children and six grandchildren would never have been born. And that, I’m afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those nine lives I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never even blink. And so, I dare suggest, would you. And if you wouldn’t, you may be nearer to the divine than I am but you sure as hell aren’t fit to be parents or grandparents.
On 31 July 1991, George Herbert Walker Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed START, the STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Subsequently, the nuclear ICBM force was drastically reduced and consolidated.
In the 1990s there was a realignment of command structure, and the mighty gauntlet of SAC officially went away. SAC’s ICBM and bomber assets were realigned under the winged sword of the Tactical Air Command, or TAC, which was then renamed Air Combat Command (ACC). Elements of our ICBM force went to Space Command for a while.
According to Steve Sheinkin, the US and Soviet / Russian arsenals had about 65,000 nuclear weapons in the mid-1980s (Bomb, pp. 235 – 36). The Arms Control Association estimates about 13,500 total, world-wide, today.
Since the 1980s, Pakistan and North Korea joined the US, Russia, mainland China, Great Britain, France, India, and almost certainly Israel in the nuclear club. Iran is working steadily on it (Iraq was, till Israel bombed their Osiris nuclear plant).
Also, in that time, two countries I am aware of stopped their nuclear weapons programs. Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhāfī declared he would no longer pursue weapons of mass destruction, and Russia took the nukes they had in the Ukraine back when Ukraine became a separate political entity.
Qadhdhāfī and Saddam Hussein have since had their governments overthrown, and they have both been executed. Coincidence?
Non-nuclear Ukraine has since been invaded by its nuclear neighbor Russia, losing much of its land and people, not to mention its seaports.
The lesson here: those who beat their swords into ploughshares end up plowing for those who do not.
Western nuclear warriors felt pride in the fact that we were able to achieve the world’s first nuclear arms reductions, ever, by negotiating wth the Evil Empire from a position of strength, in which we played a vital part.
But subsequently, the Air Force relegated the nuclear mission from a necessary evil to an almost unnecessary side-hustle. If SAC morale could have been higher in the 1980s, it was flushed down the toilet in the decades after the Wall came down in Berlin. A few embarrassing, if not alarming, “Bent Spear” incidents in the late 2000-aughts brought this lack of emphasis on the nuclear mission painfully to light.
Our remaining air and land based nukes have since been consolidated into the USAF Global Strike Command, in an effort to bring back something like the unity of purpose and standard of perfection SAC enjoined.
In recent years, continued development of cruise missiles by the so-called People’s Republic of China, never a signatory to the INF, along with failure of the Russian Federation to abide by its terms, have led both the US and Russia to officially abandon the INF treaty.
Rogue Actors and Black Market Nukes
It’s no longer any secret that, in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, some nuclear weapons went missing.
Nuclear nation states have nukes to prevent carnage and destruction. There is still a great deal of secrecy about ICBMs, but the bad guys know where they are. In order to be a credible deterrent, their presence must be announced, and verifiable by satellite or on-site inspection.
For terrorists, carnage and destruction is the goal. But they operate in the shadows. Unlike North Korea, they can’t say “See? We can reach out and touch you, Japan!” If a terrorist group were to announce that they had a nuke, they would be “direct actioned” within hours.
Further, nuclear material breaks down after a while and must be maintained by specialists. You can’t, despite “Dr Emmett Brown’s” dire Back to the Future predictions, just pick up plutonium at your neighborhood convenience store. Where I’m going with this is, a nuke would be a hot potato a terrorist group can’t just sit on and gloat. As soon as they get a functional nuke, they will start working on how to deliver and use it.
Probably on us.
I would be shocked, but not entirely surprised, if a major city is vaporized by terrorists in my lifetime (and almost certainly in our children’s). State-controlled nuclear arsenals have proven to be effective deterrents to nuclear attack by other states, but cannot be used upon, and are therefore unlikely to deter, non-state actors.
There are other options on that front. I used to think direct action was, with very rare exceptions–like the well-deserved assassination of Osama bin Laden–the stuff of James Bond fantasy, till I worked on a Joint Terrorism Taskforce. There, I learned that the vast majority of terrorist plots are disrupted (mostly through arrests, rather than direct action) beforehand, and you often never hear about it. Although we have lost our forward footprint in the terrorism exporting countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s still possible (simply less likely) that some extremist is getting knifed in his sleeping bag as you read this.
So sleep well tonight.
Beyond Olympic Arena
Olympic Arena (and other Command-wide competitions) created an unintended consequence, not entirely unlike a college or high school athlete recruiting scandal. The same guys went out for the teams, year after year, bringing the skills they had learned before, and their athleticism, with them. Colonels began to “trade” select competitors between commands just in time for their own competition seasons.
The idea that all that training was going into the same individuals, and not being disseminated to the rest of the wings’ personnel, did not go unnoticed. SAC started imposing something like “term limits” in an effort to share the wealth, so ’89 had to be my last season.
Also, that year, SAC began what I called the “Pygmalion / My Fair Lady” experiment. Bases could have tryouts for a portion of the team, but the remainder had to be selected at random (by someone higher up) from among the entire SP population of the group.
The results were mixed.
On the one hand, ANYONE can improve with proper training and plenty of practice.
I, of all people, should know, because I’m a sterling example. OA gave me that rarest of opportunities: enough ammo, qualified instruction, and training time to actually reach the pinnacle of my own ability. When I did, I found I peaked out below most of my OA peers, because I didn’t have as much innate talent and ability (visual acuity, eye-hand coordination, strength, athleticism, etc) as the others had. Yet, two years before, in 1986, I had been the highest scoring marksman in my SP Academy class, because I had ANY training, and had practiced AT ALL, outside of work, when almost none of my classmates had.
I was the top marksman in my Border Patrol Academy class. The top rifleman in my Combat Arms instructor tech school. (I was only 3rd out of my classmates at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, and 2nd in my Arizona POST Rifle Instructor course.) I won the “man on man” shoot-off at Gunsite in my API 250 pistol class. I won a man on man shoot-off in a competition last week.
Not because I’m good, but because I suck.
I suck so badly, I need to practice constantly to maintain my edge.
So I do.
So should you, whether you suck at shooting or not.
No amount of innate talent will make up for a lack qualified instruction and practice. Most of that practice can be dry (without shooting ammo), as most of mine is.
On the wall in the OA War Room, SMSgt Ferguson had posted the Napoleon Bonaparte quote, “The moral is to the physical as three is to one.”
I read, later, that was a simplified translation of words Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph, in notes he entitled Observations on Spanish Affairs. A more thorough translation might be “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.” (For more, see ShannonSelin.com)
There’s a certain mental element (call it what you want: chutzpa, heart, or just plain give-a-damn) that you can’t create. That drive has to be there within the person who tries out, who WANTS tough training, who wants to be sharpened as iron sharpens iron.
The type of warrior who does NOT ring the bell during Navy BUD/s. During Hell Week, all a SEAL candidate has to do, to make the pain, cold, and exhaustion stop, is to ring the bell. They’ll send him back to his previous assignment, with no hard feelings.
It’s the sort of spirit they screen for with the starvation and sleep deprivation of Ranger School and the Green Beret selection process.
It’s the reason my (first) Border Patrol Academy roommate, God bless him, quit right before our second day of PT. We had barely survived the first, and he’d rather give up at decent paying job than to go back for more.
Remember, Ferg didn’t pick me because I could run. He picked me because I couldn’t run, but I just kept on going anyway.
“Look over there . . . look at her. She decided to stay, instead of taking liberty on this weekend. She may not make it through the program, but she’s got more heart and character than you will ever have!”
–Lou Gossett Jr, as “Sgt Foley,” in An Officer and a Gentleman
If your mind is right, your butt will follow. SMSgt Ferguson taught me a lot about what it means to get your mind right, and how to keep it right.
I only got a slice of SMSgt Ferguson’s life
SMSgt Ferguson had a long and distinguished career. His time coaching Missile Comp was just part of it.
Ferg’s MILES course
He was instrumental in creating FE Warren’s MILES course, two fields with more or less identical terrain features, cover, and obstacles, placed adjacent to each other but rotated exactly 180 degrees from one another.
The idea was to eliminate terrain as a factor favoring one side or the other (what did Obi Wan say? “It’s over, Anakin. I have the high ground”).
The MILES course permitted us to have intramural competitions between all flights, in all SP squadrons, on base. Competition provided an incentive that isn’t otherwise there in day-to-day training.
Ferg the Flight Chief (and later, Superintendent)
I’m fairly certain that when I go to Hell my own particular punishment will be as a close-in sentry on a B-52 at Minot (or perhaps Loring, Maine, another tropical paradise of the Northern Tier). It will always be February, and I’ll always be on the midnight shift. The sun will never rise.
I long for the Lord more than sentries long for the dawn, yes, more than sentries long for the dawn.
–Psalm 130:6 (New Living Translation)
In my personal Hell, Gore-tex will never have been invented. Satan will be the fight chief. He’ll drive around on post checks once every hundred years or so, and he’ll crack the window of his truck just far enough for me to smell his coffee before he smirks and drives away.
Most Security Forces flight chiefs spend the majority of their time in the back office, writing next week’s schedule (and these days, surfing the net). They might make it around for post checks once a shift.
SMSgt Ferguson was the type of flight chief who was constantly in the field. He would sneak up on sentries to keep them on their toes.
Ferg’s OpFor Team
After the ’89 OA season, SMSgt Ferguson floated the idea of a 90 SPG OpFor unit, specializing in guerrilla (these days we’d call that “asymmetrical”) methods. The OpFor would be used as a cadre to train the rest of the SP group. He arranged for us to train on foreign weapons and tactics with the 4th Infantry Division’s OpFor detachment–the same outfit I’d trained with during RECONDO at Ft Carson in ’83.
None Higher, in my Humble Estimation
I’d grown up around heroes like Bill Kirk and Charles “Vas” Vasiliadis. I’ve met legends like Robin Olds and Robbie Risner. I was in the military, on active duty or in the ‘Guard / Reserves, from 1980 to 2014. I had plenty of good NCOs and officers–and some bad. I’ve trained under world-class experts in their fields.
There are several who stand out in my mind, but none higher than SMSgt Ferguson. I learned more from him, in two seasons on the Olympic Arena team, than I ever did from anyone else.
Thank you, sir.
The surf’s still up on Crow Creek.
–George H, TSgt, USAFR (ret)
* Wyckoff wrote “Missileer” before the career field was opened to women. I cut and pasted that rendition from tacmissileers.org. It should be noted that their version has a typo I’ve corrected in the version I posted on this site. Wyckoff’s original poem uses the word “tacit” in “. . . certain as the rising sun, these tacit warriors seldom see . . .” and an excellent choice of words “tacit” is, in that context.
When most of us think of the word “warrior,” something like a Navy SEAL comes to mind. Even after START, the ICBM missileers wield more destructive military power than any other warriors in history, but they are seldom seen or thought of. Many of them are on nuclear alert duty at this very moment, and will be tonight while you sleep. I took the liberty of emphasizing “for someone has to be” with italics.
As Bill Murray said in Stripes, “That’s the fact, Jack.”