I t was a scene that Tech. Sgt. Donald Gansberger is likely never to forget. In a remote valley in Afghanistan, small arms fire rained down from the north, while Taliban fighters launched rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire from the sides. Pinned down, it was a critical moment for the American Soldiers, with the potential for disaster rapidly mounting.
Gansberger quickly made a call on his radio, and minutes later, an A-10 Thunderbolt II appeared overhead, targeting the enemy position and killing the attackers within seconds. After the smoke cleared, a Soldier approached Gansberger with a simple comment he’ll remember for the rest of his life. “Because of you, I get to go home to my daughter,” the Soldier said.
Gansberger is a member of an elite group of Airmen known as tactical air control party members and is assigned to the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron at Fort Bragg, N.C. The unit’s mission is to provide close air support for airborne Soldiers during any type of contingency or conflict.
A TACP must react at a moment’s notice during the heat of battle to save the lives of the Soldiers around him. He has to control his “stack,” of available aircraft at different altitudes, be a master of munitions and eliminate the possibility of friendly fire. Because a joint terminal attack controller is the sole representative of airpower, a young staff or technical sergeant may have to refuse a ground commander’s request for airpower resources when necessary.
Each embedded TACP team consists of the ROMAD; the radio operator, maintainer and driver; the JTAC, a fully certified TACP who directly communicates with pilots to call close air support; and the ALO, or air liaison officer. While ALOs are traditionally officers, today’s enlisted JTACs often fill this position at the battalion level.
Because there is only one battalion air liaison officer to manage close air support per battalion, they are always on call and work without replacement.
“Every battalion has a BALO, and that entire battalion is his responsibility,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson, a JTAC who has been deployed as a BALO with the airborne infantry. “He is responsible for the lives of everyone who goes outside the wire that day.”
While BALOs work behind the wire, relaying information to the battalion commander and managing the battle space, most TACPs in the field find themselves living, eating, sleeping and patrolling with their Army counterparts.
“You are with them all the time,” Gansberger said. “Platoons often rotate between guard duty and outposts, so those guys would get a break. But there is only one JTAC per company, so I was on every mission, all the time. There were times when I would get back from a mission and some first sergeant would be waiting for me with fresh batteries and water. I never even got to see my room. I would just turn back around and head out on my next mission.”
Most controllers enjoy life outside the wire. Senior Airman Nicholas Hettinger enlisted in the career field because of the opportunity for combat.“We take a lot of gruff from the Army, but when we prove ourselves on the battlefield, they take it all back and will lay down their lives for you. It helps when you ‘speak Army.’” — Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson
“I wanted to get a feel for combat life. I always wanted to be a part of that,” he said. “I never wanted a 9-to-5 job, and I like being active and having a change of pace. I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie.”
Robertson said wearing the Air Force uniform means that to be accepted among the ranks of their Army brethren, TACPs must first show what they bring to the fight.
“We take a lot of gruff from the Army, but when we prove ourselves on the battlefield, they take it all back and will lay down their lives for you. It helps when you ‘speak Army.’”
Robertson is considered by his fellow TACPs to be among the best and said that while he’s proud to wear the Air Force uniform, his job often places him in austere conditions other Airmen may never experience or understand.
“During my first deployment, I lived in the dirt for my first two months before acquiring a camo net to provide some shade from the heat,” he said. “I slept in my Humvee until toward the end, when I got a small tent during the middle of an Afghan summer.”
Staff Sgt. Cody McNorton agreed that most TACPs fight “tooth and nail” to get both support and respect from the Soldiers they work with, and he finds that most of his fellow TACPs have their own stories to tell.
“We don’t fall under their command, and we are there to support them, but much of the time, the Army wants us to do more than we’re expected to do,” said McNorton. “Whether it be pulling guard, sorting mail, or pulling (kitchen duty), many TACPs will do what’s necessary to fit in, even if they think the Army is taking advantage of them. We go on missions with them, we eat where they eat, sleep where they sleep, so we naturally form a bond.”
TACPs are normally deployed for a minimum of six months at a time, with usually a six-month window at home. But Robertson said most Airmen assigned to the 14th ASOS see very little of that time off.
“Out of the six months back at Fort Bragg, we only see two to three of those months at home. After TDYs, school, weapons and Army training, we’re never home,” he said. “The amount of responsibility that comes with JTAC certification is huge. We have to adhere to all of the Air Force training and standards, as well as to all of the Army standards.”
Becoming a JTAC is not a one-time thing, said Gansberger. The necessary certifications need continual updating and refreshing.
“Every 12 to 16 months, we have to have a JTAC evaluation, where we control a live bomb drop off of an aircraft, simulate a laser drop and complete a drop where we can see the weapon and the target,” said Gansberger. “We have to control aircraft at night and fulfill other certification requirements like airborne jumps.”
In a career field filled with extreme danger, long hours, Spartan conditions and months away from home, family life can suffer. Robertson said even in the best of marriages, the career requires sacrifices.
“I’m married with two kids, and my wife and I have been married for seven years,” he said. “Out of those seven years, I’ve been home about three.”
Robertson and Gansberger are luckier than many TACP husbands, in that their wives are also Airmen and understand the rigors of deployments and TDYs.
Tech. Sgt. Paulette Gansberger has herself been deployed twice to areas in Southwest Asia. Paulette said the key to successful marriage to a TACP, especially in one where the spouse is not in the military, is communication.
“Being in the intelligence field allows us to stay in contact much easier,” she said. “His deployments are longer than mine, and he deploys to more dangerous places, but during this last deployment, we were able to talk almost every day online. But during previous deployments we weren’t as lucky.
Her husband said in his career field, timing is everything when planning a life with someone else. Even a wedding.
“We had to line up our deployments three months before our ceremony and getting joint spouse assignments is very difficult,” he said. “Since we’ve been married, none of our deployments have ever lined up but every tax return over our past three years of marriage has been filed with a deployment.”
Many TACPs feel they are in a grey area, not quite green and not quite blue. When most TACPs go to their next duty assignment, it is usually to places like Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Campbell, Ky.; or Fort Drum, N.Y. – places far from a supporting Air Force unit.
“I’m an Airman. You can’t take that away from me,” said Staff Sgt. Matt Trimble. “But at the same time all of our work is with the Army. We wear a beret, and there aren’t many people in the Air Force who do what we do.”
McNorton said the intense training, being in the heat of combat and bringing airpower directly to the enemy to save lives, make the TACP career field the best in the Air Force.
“It’s the single most rewarding job I could imagine and simply the best in the Air Force,” he said.