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Combat public affairs: a day in the life

DAEGU AIR BASE, Korea -- What began as a routine MC-130 flight to snap photographs of special tactics personnel jumping from the aircraft into the waters of the Yellow Sea, quickly became a combat search and rescue mission.

You see, I was a passenger aboard an aircraft belonging to the 353rd Special Operations Group, a group of members who had traveled to Daegu for our operational readiness inspection. Our home base is Kadena Air Base, Japan, and our major command is Air Force Special Operations Command.

At the completion of the flight, an AFSOC inspector promptly gathered the 9-member crew, me, the legal advisor and the chaplain, all passengers, and read an inject card which read something like, "Your plane has crashed and miraculously the aircrew, the public affairs and the judge advocate general have all survived. Unfortunately, your chaplain was killed."

After the initial shock that our chaplain was "simulated" dead. I realized that this was the beginning of a night in the woods for us. We were taken to an undisclosed destination that provided our "simulated" crash site. Along the way, I found out that all of the aircrew members were extremely excited about surviving and evading. Combat survival was something that they had all been trained to do. There was talk about building fires with sticks and a three-night excursion in the woods. We used our time wisely during the ride and camouflaged our faces, in preparation for what would lie ahead.

There was some conversation about the two passengers who had no hands-on survival training. The talk centered on ensuring that we knew that we would be taken care of every step of the way. The crew was equipped with gadgets to help us find our way, food supplies, maps, water, cold weather gear and even blankets. As soon as they were told that we had survived, the crew was given three minutes to grab whatever they would have grabbed if there had been an actual crash.

Onto our undisclosed destination ... There we found out that one of the crew was injured. He was given first aid and his arm splinted and bandaged. We then traveled about 200 paces to a location to take cover, hydrate, and most importantly call for help. It was assumed that the crew had already communicated a distress signal before crashing.

We continued our march, all the while trying to be as quiet as possible while staying together and staying out of the sights of the enemy. We covered another 200 paces and stopped again. It was there that we learned that ground forces could meet up with us for rescue at a particular rendezvous point and block of time. It was our mission to get to those coordinates at the designated time. At this stop, aircrew members explained to us how the global positioning satellite worked. They also reminded us of the particulars that we would need to remember when we would eventually be rescued. There were signs and countersigns that would alert our rescuers of our authenticity. From there we trudged through sand and water, another 400 paces. There was discussion about moving the large group to the designated coordinates on time being no small feat.

This time scouts were sent ahead to ensure the safest route to our rescue coordinates. These same scouts would signal our rescuers.

We made it to the rescuers, eventually. We had trekked through sand, dirt and water. After rescuers ensured our authenticity and a short ride in the bed of a pickup truck, "End Exercise," was called.

From there we all rode back to our starting point. During the ride home, the inspector provided feedback on all of the steps exercised in the scenario. It was then that I realized that it is definitely a privilege to serve in the U.S. military.

We exited the bus and headed back to check in at work. We had just spent nearly seven hours learning what it would be like to crash land and have to fend for ourselves. The scenario was not at all far-fetched. I regularly fly with the 353 Special Operations Group during joint combined exercise training as well as real world missions hoping to capture moments in time on my digital camera. It's my job to tell the Air Force story as it's written by my fellow Pacific Air Commandos through photographs and words.

I'd never really considered what it would be like to crash on a routine training mission. We fly throughout the Pacific, in countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. We wouldn't necessarily be trying to escape the enemy, but how would I survive if a routine mission turned into a crash?

It's no secret that we all complete annual ancillary training - even Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape computer-based training. But quite often we take our training and others' even more intense training as another hum-drum requirement. I had never been a part of anything quite like this and I had no idea what to expect. My inspector claims he had no idea either.

I'll admit that the thought of spending a few days in the woods did not sound like fun to me. And, I'll also admit that the thought of eating bugs and sleeping in the cold was not tops on my fun things to do list. But, I have to admit that this survival scenario has been my favorite portion of the inspection, along with being the most humbling.

As the story continues, I was greeted with hoots of, "Hey, Combat PA," at midnight chow. I was proudly wearing my face paint and I was proud of what I had accomplished. I proudly told my story to anyone who would listen. But, mostly I am proud to serve with trained professionals who never faltered as we accomplished our mission.

Granted, I was never at fear for my life or face-to-face with the enemy, but I feel I have a better understanding of what so many service members must feel like as they defend our country behind enemy lines.

I didn't take any photographs to remind me of the mission, but I do have one more story to tell about the training and operational readiness of my fellow Pacific Air Commandos.