Story by Staff Sgt. Rachel Williams, 24th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks which marked the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, U.S. service members saw an increased spike in deployments that has ultimately sustained its high tempo for nearly two decades.
For the men and women of the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, since their initial response to the GWOT in October 2001, there have been no breaks in deployments and combat operations for over 6,900 days in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, FREEDOM’S SENTINEL and RESOLUTE SUPPORT.
Day in and day out, members of the unit can be found scattered around the globe, bringing the fight to the enemy’s front door. These never-ending actions are one of the many that directly reflect the testament of the heritage, courage and sacrifice of the unit that can only be foreseen to continue.
“The 17th STS members have single handedly removed [thousands] of [high value targets] from the battlefield and therefore severely degraded terrorist networks that pose a threat to U.S. interest,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Travis Deutman, the commander of the 17th STS. “Most importantly, our operators are consistently providing desperately needed close air support at the most critical times in combat, while also coordinating insertion, extraction, and medical and casualty evacuation lift for critically wounded teammates.”
The 17th STS is unique within the Air Force Special Tactics community in several ways.
The squadron, instead of residing in one location, is geographically separated in three locations so that the unit can train and deploy alongside all five of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 75th Ranger Regiment battalions. Headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia, alongside the Regimental Headquarters, 3rd Ranger Battalion, Regimental Special Troops Battalion, and Regimental Military Intelligence Battalion. Two operational detachments are located at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, alongside the 1st Ranger Battalion, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, alongside the 2nd Ranger Battalion.
Consisting of primarily tactical air control party Airmen, the unit’s primary mission is to provide Air Force Special Operations Command’s Special Tactics TACPs to the 75th Ranger Regiment, pairing the Department of Defense’s most lethal joint terminal attack controllers with the most premiere direct-action raid force. Essentially, the 17th STS operators are directing precision strike munitions and delivering destructive ordnance on enemy targets in support of the Ranger ground scheme of maneuver.
Aside from TACPs, the unit also provides special reconnaissance Airmen, combat controllers, Special Tactics officers and combat mission support Airmen to the 75th Ranger Regiment to enhance its precision strike and global access capabilities.
“No other unit in the [United States Air Force] offers the opportunity to close with and destroy enemies of the United States like those of us selected to support the Ranger Regiment,” said an ST TACP operator with the 17th STS. “The Ranger Regiment is its own legend-generator and the opportunity to serve alongside one of the most lethal light infantry forces on earth is humbling.”
The bond between the 17th STS and the 75th Ranger Regiment is inimitable due to the respective units being geographically located together and conducting entire training cycles with the exact team that they will be deploying with.
“The 17th STS promotes what I would argue is the foremost example of joint service relationships,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron Inch, an ST TACP operator with the 17th STS. “This unit has an extremely proud lineage and comes with the responsibility for each member to uphold and/or surpass the standard that has been set by those before us.”
With ongoing involvement in combat comes valor, and the Special Tactics community has just that. It is the most highly decorated community in the Air Force since the end of the Vietnam War with the 17th STS having a large hand in that statistic, seeing its members receive more than 80 high valor medals for courageous actions in combat.
“The foundation of this unit is the heritage of warriors that distinguished themselves in combat before we walked these halls,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Steve Reedy, the 17th STS operations superintendent. “Every member of this organization earns their right to be a member every day in keeping with that heritage.”
One of the latest examples of recognition that the 17th STS has been awarded was in April 2019 when U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch, an ST TACP operator with the 17th STS, was awarded the Silver Star Medal for actions while deployed with the 75th Ranger Regiment to Afghanistan in 2018. With this presentation, Kelsch became the first TACP to be awarded a Silver Star for actions in combat during the last seven years.
“Getting to lead people for whom undertaking such dangerous missions are just another day is inexplicable,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Evan Serpa, the 17th STS Senior Enlisted Leader.
For the quiet professionals of this prestigious squadron, it is common to hear throughout the unit for one operator’s battlefield successes to be credited to his entire team. They spend days, weeks, and months training alongside each other to forge trust and competency to take downrange.
“The training that we provide simply adds different layers and different [tactics, techniques, and procedures], seeing that the Ranger Regiment conducts operations in a very specific way,” said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Evan Patoray, 17th STS, Detachment 2 flight commander. “All of our training is fast paced and complex, and although the basics do not change, the level and repetition at which we do the basics is what sets us apart. As a team, we push each other beyond what we have all seen in combat. We do this because we understand that if this training does not save their own life, it will allow them to save the lives of the Rangers around them.”
The physical and mental challenges the operators undergo for at least 275 days out of the year equips them for the demanding environment they will face downrange.
“Technical competency matters, professionalism matters, but your mental fortitude and intellectual flexibility might be the most important attributes,” said an ST TACP operator with the 17th STS. “The training to get here and working with [the Ranger Regiment] prepares you for the realities of combat.”
The high-speed operations tempo can be brutal and toxic to the operator and their home life if they do not have the proper training and decompression time, according to U.S Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Duhon, an ST TACP operator with the 17th STS.
The Special Tactics Airmen aren’t alone with their sacrifices; their families have also sacrificed immensely for over 6,900 days in support of their loved ones. They’ve missed birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and much more, to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
“A lot of personal sacrifice has to happen to make a unit like this one so effective and professional,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ferguson, squadron flight chief. “We do not take breaks. We operate alongside our 75th [Ranger Regiment] brothers.”
In order to be welcomed into the Special Tactics community, aspiring conventional TACP Airmen undergo a harrowing week-long assessment at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The assessment is designed to test the candidates limits and determine if they have what it takes to join the ranks within ST. Candidates are then are hand-selected into the 17th STS.
“The team will push you to be the best version of yourself on and off the battlefield,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joey Hauser, an ST TACP operator with the 17th STS. “The missions you will be of have impact felt at a national strategic level, and the legacy you will be of, will be some of your proudest accomplishments in life.”
If you asked members of the 17th STS what it means to be a part of the combat-proven unit, one common answer would stand out – humbling.
“We fight, bleed and laugh beside [the Rangers]. We win as a team or fail as a team,” said Duhon. “When we are downrange, there is no deviation or segregation between Air Force and Army. We are one team fighting daily together to overcome adversaries.”