PAINTBALL! - An exercise in combat leadership

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Lindsey
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Capt. Maygen Wilson adjusted her lumpy, 5-pound flack vest as she crouched silently behind a large gray concrete pipe.

Her wide, thick-lashed blue eyes cautiously scanned for even the slightest movement. A protective full-face mask pressed awkwardly down on her nose, somewhat impeding her vision. She carefully aimed her rifle downrange.

Pop! Pop! Pop! The "bad guys" had initiated their assault.

Their weapons? Paintball guns.

Thus began the Squadron Officer School Combat Leadership Exercise at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., for Flight 60.

Although the exercise has an expeditionary tone, it's more about honing leadership skills than combat skills. One of several SOS experiential lessons, its success depends on individual willingness to operate as a team, the team's ability to communicate effectively under pressure, and the team's ability to take full advantage of its members' strengths and to help each other overcome weaknesses, said Capt. Lisa Miller, the SOS Flight 60 commander and facilitator.

"We just want to make them better leaders here; we don't want to break them," the flight commander said.

The paintballs simply serve as a mildly stinging reminder of the importance of the lessons.

Squadron Officer School is the next step in the Air Force officer professional military education system, after first gaining commission through Officer Training School, Reserve Officer Training Corps or Air Force Academy graduation, and successfully completing the Air and Space Basic Course as a lieutenant.

Its instruction is designed to help captains with four to seven years in the Air Force and select civilian equivalents hone their team leadership skills in an educational environment, "giving officers more tools for their tool bags," said Col. Michael Pipan, SOS commandant.

The Combat Leadership Exercise was added to the SOS curriculum about one year ago, and nearly 3,500 students have completed it to date.

In the Game

"What do you see over there," the team leader asked Wilson as she peered around the barrier a little further.

"I don't see anybody," she replied.

Despite the anxiety she felt about the rumored bite of the paintballs, the full-time reserve personnel officer from the 919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field in Crestview, Fla., volunteered to be in one of the first groups of officers to move out from the defensive position.

The flight's mission objectives raced through her mind: Eradicate the enemy, rescue an Airman in enemy territory, and have all 14 flight members meet at a safe house located about 35 feet over to the far left of the field.

They had 15 minutes to make it happen.

Strict rules of engagement outlined what the flight could and couldn't do, both a help and hindrance to the Airmen, just as in the real world. If shot in the head or torso, a player is dead. Limb shots only wound a player, but are nearly as costly. Two healthy players must assist all wounded or killed flight members when moved on the field.

An unidentified rifle fired in full-automatic mode.
"Who was that?" questioned a teammate.

Flight 60 was unexpectedly separated into two teams and placed at opposite sides of the 40-yard playing field at the start of the exercise. The two teams of seven captains had to be careful not to commit friendly fire. Positively identifying a combatant before returning fire is simply exercising good judgment (and one of the tenets of safe weapons handling). But this can be a difficult call when adrenaline and fear rush the brain, even in a game.

"There's one!" exclaimed Wilson as she attempted to take out an identified combatant about 40 yards straight ahead.

Her weapon misfired.

Leaders Learning

As a grade-schooler building forts and playing with her brothers and sister in Cincinnati, Wilson imagined herself as a military leader defending her home and country. The Sycamore High School graduate desired to be more than just a student at Bowling Green State University and joined the ROTC, where she felt at home as part of a disciplined team.

During the 26-year-old's Air Force career, she has deployed twice to Southwest Asia in 2005 and 2006, leading teams of two and five Airmen. When she heard she was selected to attend SOS in-residence, she looked forward to improving her teambuilding skills. She's done that.

The core of SOS instruction consists of seven repeated enduring leadership competencies: Exercise sound judgment, inspire trust, adapt and perform under pressure, lead courageously, assess self, foster effective communication, and promote collaboration and teamwork. Wilson's flight excelled at this. In its fourth of five weeks of SOS, it had a good shot at taking the title of Top Flight from the 30 flights and 425 captains in session.

"They have everything to gain from working together as a team," Miller said. "Individually they can graduate, but not as a top class."

The exercise also encourages the officers to get out of the "heads down" approach by showing them how to use the variety of career field experts at their disposal to successfully accomplish the mission, said Lt. Col. Gerard Ryan, SOS 33rd Student Squadron commander.

Clear Communication

After fixing her jammed rifle, Wilson and her partner crouched behind a vertical pile of pallets and scanned the area for the downed Airman.

"He's right here!" her partner shouted. "Come on, come on. I don't feel like getting shot," he implored.

Wilson changed her rifle to her left hand and grabbed hold of the downed Airman with her right. The mannequin was heavier than it looked.

Wilson struggled to lift the 50-pound dummy by the leg.

A third officer saw the problem, joined the rescue team, and the three quickly carried the downed Airman to safety.

Pop! Pop! Pop! The sound was constant as were shouted instructions from one forward-moving group to another. The rest of the flight successfully took down the enemy.

Wilson's team secured the rescued Airman in a safe house and dashed out to help the other groups with injured Airmen. Teams of Airmen gathered in the safe house as the fog horn sounded; the officers all set their weapons on safe as instructed. Task One was done, and they performed well. They had 15 minutes to accomplish their mission. They did it in six-and-a-half minutes -- less than half the time.

"That went text book," Miller said.

The early finish gave the team more time to plan the next and more difficult of two tasks.

"We did a lot better when we spread out," commented one of the team.

"Yeah," confirmed Capt. Brent Curtis, the team leader and an F-15C pilot from Eglin AFB, Fla. "In the future, we'll spread out a little earlier. ..."

"We need cross-field communication," chimed in another team member when invited to share observations. "To ensure we don't get pinned down," explained another. "We need to communicate who is to be laying down the suppressive fire."

Home Stretch

Time was up. The team of 14 captains gathered at the starting point for Task Two, a 15-foot barricade made up of three concrete barriers. The team had to rescue two newly captured, wounded team members, suppress the enemy and still reach the safe area located at the end of the field.

Pop, pop, pop! insurgent fire began.

"All right guys, go!" The second team headed out as Wilson and her partner, Capt. Nick Rowe, a KC-135 pilot from Fairchild AFB, Wash., laid down suppressive fire.

But Task Two hit the team with some well-timed sucker punches.

Minutes in, under their teammates' cover, Rowe and Wilson rushed forward to a stack of pallets, but Rowe was shot in the belly by the enemy when he reached the barrier. Wilson ducked down to prevent from getting hit.

With her partner declared dead, she called to her teammates for assistance in transporting him to the safe zone.

The officers advanced forward in teams, assisting their wounded and carrying their dead in twos, taking turns laying suppressive fire and ending the enemy threat as the next team advanced. Cease-fire and time was called. The exercise was over. The team cheered -- it had successfully met its mission objectives within the allotted time with more than nine minutes to spare.

Wilson also met her personal objective of learning how to overcome anxiety on the field and in the office.

"When you're the officer in charge, and a team of (junior Airmen) look to you as the leader, showing fear can potentially instill fear in them," she said. "I learned how to swallow the fear and show courage to accomplish the mission."