RED HORSE, first boots on the ground

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jacob Hancock
  • 125th Fighter Wing

Explosions, gunfire, and heavy machinery. Airmen of the 202nd RED HORSE Squadron started their morning at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center hunkered down in the field, ready to respond to every situation thrown their way. Their primary objective was simple: master the skills required for contingency deployments overseas in a safe, observed environment.

During major conflicts, the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers provide the Air Force with a highly mobile and rapidly deployable civil engineering response force. These self-sufficient units perform heavy damage repair, spearheading the development and recovery of critical Air Force facilities and utility systems. They are also responsible for ensuring continuity of aircraft launch and recovery in forward operating bases. RED HORSE squadrons independently respond to contingency and special operations in remote, high-threat environments world-wide.

“One of our main missions is to go out and do base expeditionary engineering,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Jackie Brower, a structures-focused civil engineering officer. “We go out to an open piece of land, and we make a fully operational base where we can land aircraft on it within 48 hours.”

This exercise marks the second phase of training before the squadron deploys overseas later in 2022. During phase two, these engineers reinforce and implement their training in a safe environment while overcoming the real-world challenges they may face while down range.

“Practice makes perfect,” said Airman 1st Class Brian Baez, 202nd RED HORSE Squadron client systems administrator. “We simulated that we were actually deploying in real-time, and these simulations allowed us to implement our training and respond to attacks as if they were in the real world.”

These specialists went into an open field and within 48 hours, they turned grass and sand into an operational FOB. A wing inspection team hovered over the shoulders of these men and women as they fought to complete common tasks all while being attacked by an oppositional force.

During chemical attacks, members retreated to a hardened shelter. Once under the protective cover, they donned Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear to avoid exposure to dangerous gasses. Once donned, they performed buddy checks, ensuring the gear provided its intended protection. Following initial attacks, post attack reconnaissance teams conducted initial assessments of remaining threats, such as chemical contamination and unexploded ordinances.

Airmen also faced numerous ground attacks. Enemy fire cratered the base’s airfield, rendering it useless. While a team overhauled repairs on the airfield, trainees armed a vehicle with improvised explosive devices. This large IED was then accelerated towards the main entry control point by a suicide bomber. The explosion obliterated the ECP, resulting in multiple casualties and initiating a shelter-in-place order.

Armed with AK-47s and bazookas, enemy forces engaged the camp, testing the Airmen’s defensive abilities. All hostiles were promptly eradicated by the defenders. The repair team then continued transforming the field of rubble, turning it back into a fully operational runway within a couple hours of the initial attack.

“We practice like we play,” Brower said. “This type of training is crucial, and being able to do it so quickly, safely, and efficiently ensures that we remain the number one Air Force.”

In these safe environments, individuals receive immediate feedback on what actions could be improved, why they could be improved, and how to correct the situations in the future. These exercises also rapidly enhance theAirmen’s confidence and competency. Airmen are able to make mistakes in these safe environments to mitigate the risk of mistakes while in real danger downrange.

“We’re training the next generation of Airmen on the skill sets to be ready for anything in the wartime environment,” Brower said. “This training in particular is critical for establishing our presence in different areas, especially in being able to project our force overseas.”

When the civil engineers at the 202nd aren’t turning dirt fields into operational bases on the federal side, they are protecting their state during natural disasters. Since the unit’s inception in 1985, Airmen of the 202nd are often the first boots on the ground after natural disasters. These specialists regularly clear heavy debris from roadways and aid in the restoration of critical infrastructure in affected areas. They have responded to incidents ranging from wildfires to category 5 hurricanes.

“This is only half of our mission,” said Brower. “Our other main mission is to serve the state of Florida, and this training allows us to get practice on mobility and expeditionary engineering that we can use during hurricane responses.”

After the last bullet was fired and the last crater filled in, the Airmen of the 202nd RED HORSE gathered around to reminisce on the hard work they did in the field. The relief they felt was evident on their faces as they began to tear down everything they had built up. They had accomplished their objective, bringing this phase of training to a close.