When fully trained, Ravens are air marshals on the ground who deploy with aircrew members on missions designated by the AMC Threat Working Group. Raven teams protect aircraft and their crews and cargo from criminal and terrorist threats while traveling through airfields where security is either unknown or inadequate. The Air Force has fewer than 150 Ravens executing AMC’s force protection of strategic airlift around the world. The intense qualification course ensures the select few who become Ravens are of an exceptional caliber.
(U.S. Air Force Video by Jimmy D. Shea)
Before standing in line alongside the wall outside the room, the candidates ran inside stacking their boots, canteen and manual neatly on the far wall and quickly lining up in formation. Instructors insist on this practice to reinforce attention to detail, quick thinking and acting as a team, just as Airmen learn in basic military training. The candidates then ran in place before they were given the command to stretch while 10 instructors circled them like lions closing in on dinner. The instructors then inspected the candidates in formation looking for physical training uniform violations, and they found them.
A prestigious personal lifetime number, signifying membership in a distinctive cadre, awaited two security forces members if they could survive the next three weeks of training. After completing prerequisite training at their home bases, California Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Bryan Farmer and Staff Sgt. Spencer Wallace felt they were physically and mentally ready for Air Mobility Command’s Phoenix Raven Qualification Course at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, but they had only just been introduced to what previous candidates called the “House of Pain.”
Two days into the course at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, Farmer, Wallace and the other candidates were gasping for breath just a few minutes into the four hours of intense physical training referred to as a “smoke session.” The Raven instructors made it known that they were not impressed with the 36 candidates huffing and puffing in the 421st Combat Training Squadron’s aptly nicknamed physical fitness room.
When fully trained, Ravens are air marshals on the ground who deploy with aircrew members on missions designated by the AMC Threat Working Group. Raven teams protect aircraft and their crews and cargo from criminal and terrorist threats while traveling through airfields where security is either unknown or inadequate. The Air Force has fewer than 150 executing AMC’s force protection of strategic airlift around the world. The intense qualification course ensures the select few who become Ravens are of an exceptional caliber.
Later, Farmer learned how the House of Pain received its nickname. When the pain set in, the instructors tried to inspire the candidates not to focus as much on the 500th pushup or 1000th flutter kick. They wanted them to use the reason they came to Raven training in the first place as fuel to help push themselves further.
“When it starts to hurt, look up at the ceiling and think of all of the adventures you’re going to have as Ravens,” Tech. Sgt. Scott Benford a Raven qualification instructor, advised candidates before putting them through the relentless smoke session.
Still, quite a few candidates were falling far short of the instructors’ expectations. As disappointment set in throughout the House of Pain, candidate Staff Sgt. Bradley Guiterrez yelled out, “We chose this! Let’s go!” triggering a chorus of “We chose this!” from several other candidates.
Farmer, a guardsman with California ANG’s 146th Security Forces Squadron at Channel Islands Air National Guard Base and a heating, ventilating and air-conditioning technician at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, began the course with the intention of taking the training day by day. After his introduction to the House of Pain, Farmer revised his strategy to a meal-by-meal approach.
Wallace, a senior instructor with the 435th SFS at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, compared the grind of each training day to that of the 2015 International Best Soldier Competition in Croatia, which featured a 33-mile ruck march over rough terrain.
“That was just one day, and it was the most I ever pushed (myself) mentally and physically,” he said. “That’s how I feel every day here.”
It is a candidates’ unrelenting perseverance during periods of intense physical and mental stress that the instructors value the most.
The intense training atmosphere sparked an impressive transformation in the candidates: from base security patrol personnel and installation gate sentries to a highly trained team that plans and provides aircraft security anywhere in the world. In 21 days, the instructors’ opinions of the 26 candidates left standing at the end would change.
“The transformation from day one of training to day 22 is pretty substantial,” Benford said. “When the students get here on day one, they come as individuals from different walks of life and different installations all over the world. As instructors, our job is to train and certify them, but also to try to bring them together as a team.”
Each Raven candidate had his work cut out for him, but Farmer and Wallace had extra individual motivation.
In Wallace’s case, his primary motivation was the memory of his great-grandmother, who always wanted him to overcome a tumultuous childhood and do something special in his life.
If the 47-year-old Farmer survived the three-week course, he would become the oldest to earn a Phoenix Raven number in the program’s 19-year history, an achievement that would diminish his regret from leaving the Air Force after four years in 1991. After more than a 16-year break in service, Farmer used that regret as fuel for his determination to train for a year, lose 40 pounds and join the California ANG in 2009. Now it was time to take the step that would rectify his past career decision.
“My regular duties at my base were working patrol and the gate,” Farmer said. “We basically just scratched the surface compared with what we do here. The intensity is like nothing I’ve ever imagined. I trained really hard to come here, and it’s beyond my expectations. From the very second we first reported, if you let your guard down for a minute, you will pay. But I didn’t want to be on the sidelines. I want to be in the fight.”
Both candidates needed every ounce of inspiration they could get. Even before the physical challenges of the course, the candidates faced an atmosphere that resembled what they experienced in basic military training. Instead of military training instructors barking orders in their faces, the candidates endured the criticism and yelling of operational Ravens, who serve as instructors to ensure that each trainee receiving a coveted Raven number at the end of the course had earned it.
To earn that number, the candidates learn anti-terrorism and force protection, weapon system security, combative and tactical baton employment, advanced firearms proficiency and verbal judo, which is a communication tool designed to generate voluntary compliance. They also learn cross-cultural awareness, legal considerations, embassy operations, airfield survey techniques, explosive ordnance awareness, aircraft searches and unarmed self-defense techniques.
After the untold pain and sweat of another smoke session, instructor Tech. Sgt. Sean Cunningham pulled out the candidates’ manual and began teaching Armament Systems and Procedures (ASP) baton techniques. A later assessment of baton skills would determine if the candidates moved on in training. Three candidates dropped out in the first week because of the mental and physical toll of the training.
Then came the pivotal first day of the second week that included the ASP assessment, which could send candidates “to the house” for more smoke sessions and baton training or back to their home bases. The candidates felt the tension from the moment they awakened that morning.
“At breakfast, nobody seemed like they wanted to eat,” Wallace said. “There was no cracking jokes in the hallway. We knew this was make or break, that this could get you sent home.”
After another smoke session, candidates formed a circle and faced off with each other. One candidate held a pad for the other to strike before circling to the left to strike the pad held by the next trainee. Midway through the exercise, instructors were unhappy with the intensity and had the candidates do more than 200 side-straddle hops. Tech. Sgt. Cory Fulton, the Raven training program course director, then ordered them to stop because he was still displeased with the remaining candidates for not showing the teamwork he expected to see one week into the course.
“We are in our second week of training and we still haven’t come together as a team,” Fulton said.
Fulton led the candidates in 400 to 500 more jumping jacks, not even bothering to have them count off this time, instead substituting “Ravens” for the cadence. Finally, Fulton felt he had seen enough.
“Let’s get it together,” he told the candidates before walking away from the center of the circle.
The candidates then faced their next major hurdle – a fight with instructors in protective suits. Farmer was one of 11 who failed their baton assessment, so he received additional training before being re-evaluated. Seven of the 11 failed again and were sent back to their home bases the following afternoon, but Farmer passed.
In the candidates’ dormitory that night, there were no games of spades or movie watching like on nights earlier in the training. The scent of pain relief products filled the air, and half of the beds were occupied by 7:30, as candidates recuperated before a 4.5-mile run the following day. Those who were still awake spent the time nursing sore bodies, consuming whatever calories they could and trying to motivate themselves in preparation for what would come next. Still, several trainees felt they’d finally started to come together as a team that day. The candidates had encircled each of their classmates during retesting, pounded their punching bags, clapped and chanted encouragement throughout each trainee’s one minute of combat.
“I think we really came together today, the way we learned how to motivate each other,” Wallace said, referring to the encouragement the candidates gave the 11 during their ASP re-tests. “We were singing a song and beating on the pads like in the movie “300.” Unfortunately, we lost a few students, but I think we finally learned how to become a team today.”
Three weeks since that painful early physical training session, the 26 surviving candidates made it through the final obstacles, including weapons takeaway assessments, a written test and a final training exercise, to reach graduation day in Chief Master Sgt. Grace A. Peterson Hall. Farmer and Wallace finally received their Raven numbers 2,366 and 2,385.
Farmer almost fell just short of graduation because four days earlier, his kidneys shut down due to the toll heavy physical training took on his body. Fortunately, he was cleared to continue and became the oldest to complete Raven training.
“When I’m old, sitting on my porch and thinking back on this moment,” Farmer said. “Not that I didn’t have the support of family and friends, but at my age, everybody doubted me ever since I came back into the Air Force. But I did it. Those who did believe in me, I appreciate that, and I will look back on this as one of the defining moments of my life.”
With the smoke sessions in the House of Pain behind them, Farmer and Wallace could now look forward to a new challenge: their first missions as Air Force Ravens.