Huddled together against a cinder-block building, a stack of 12 Airmen awaits the command to enter. The Airman on point looks around the corner, attempting to determine what the next few minutes hold for those behind her. The stack presses into itself telling the Airmen by touch that their “six” is protected. Tensing like a viper they strike, funneling into the building, into the chaos that is the modern asymmetrical battlefield. Like ghosts, the Airmen systematically check each room without the need for commands. Minutes later, after the smoke disperses and the calls of “clear” ring out, the stack funnels out, 12 Airmen plus one.
This scenario was tailor-made from start to finish to hone the skills of new Airmen assigned to the 822nd Security Forces Squadron. Known as the Ghostwalkers, they are one of three operational squadrons that make up the 820th Security Forces Group. The group is unique among the Air Force security forces community in that it has no law enforcement mission, allowing its Airmen to train constantly for a very specific mission, two actually.
The unit’s primary mission is to provide the Air Force with its only worldwide deployable, first-in, self-sustaining, force-protection capability. They can go anywhere, take over a newly captured airfield and secure it so Air Force support units can prepare it for aircraft bed-down. The second mission is to provide continuous support of current operations and it keeps at least one squadron deployed at all times. This second mission is known as the steady-state mission and, according to the group’s commander, Colonel Don Derry, it is manned entirely by the 820th SFG.
“We have a specific mission to go someplace and do something.” he said. “With three operational squadrons, we relieve each other every six months.” He added that the most recent steady-state mission was at Camp Buca, Iraq, where group members provided installation security and undertook outside-the-wire combat operations during the past three years.
Though it provides predictable timelines for deployment and involves a squadron-size mobilization, the steady-state mission is not the reason the 820th SFG stood up in 1997.
“We were formed for the first-in capability,” Derry said. “For instance, the 823rd SFS is the next squadron that is scheduled to deploy for a steady-state mission and is set to deploy in June. But from this point on till June they are the on-call squadron. If something happens anywhere in the world, those folks, within 24 hours, will have wheels in the wells, traveling to do that particular mission and that mission takes precedence over the steady-state mission.”
The term, wheels in the wells, refers to the point when an aircraft is airborne and hints at the training these Airmen undergo. The unit has one of the largest jump schools in the Air Force. Though the entire unit is trained in fire-team tactics, numerous different weapons and other special skills, many are qualified in skills that make them more like Air Force infantry than cops.
Airmen from the 820th SFG are trained at several Army schools like Airborne School, Pathfinder, Special Reaction Team, the Close Precision Engagement Course, Ranger, Air Assault, Raven, an Army Sniper course and others. This advanced training gives them the ability to go in after the Army takes over an airfield and secure it before any other Air Force units touch down.
According to Colonel Derry, the unit is able to not only secure and hold ground around the installation, but they can undertake limited offensive operations outside the wire including the ability to clear an urban site like the Ghostwalkers were training for. The first-in capability is what the Ghostwalkers were training for and though the training seems different in its scope or execution, the real difference from other security forces units is that the Ghostwalkers know they will be deploying within a year and that they will be deploying with each other.
“When I did my first deployment in 2004, I went to a regional training center with 36 other guys, four of them I worked with,” said Staff Sergeant Eric Hammons, a squad leader for the Ghostwalkers. “Of those four, two were from a different flight. Here I have 13 guys under me and every single day I work with the same 13 guys. As we go clear the building we’re only going to get better. They’re going to know that when I go into a room I’m going right and they know that since I’m going right they go left.”
Sergeant Hammons and his 13 Ghostwalkers have been together for only a few months. Many of his Airmen arrived from technical school in August. For them, Sergeant Hammons is more than an NCO. He’s a leader and mentor who teaches them combat from first-hand experience.
“In tech school we learned the basics: law enforcement and security,” said Airman 1st Class Perla Rendon who possesses a friendly demeanor and is all cop when she’s clearing a building or ordering a suspect to drop his weapon. “Here we’re able to focus on one aspect and really hone our skills and we learn from guys who have been there, deployed a few times. It makes a huge difference when it’s first-hand experience.”
Her fellow Airmen echoed her opinion. During an exercise in clearing a building, a fire team of four Airmen needed to extract a wounded cop. Taking instruction from Sergeant Hammons, they had to decide on the best course of action for this situation. Drills like this are a part of daily life and the Airmen are encouraged to ask questions, come up with their own scenarios and work through them. Most of the time those scenarios are things the senior cops have experienced already.
“It’s like operational Air Force every day,” said Airman 1st Class Melissa Gonzalez, who graduated from technical school earlier this year and wears a perpetual smile. “In tech school we learn the basics, but here everyone thinks combat. I feel like I’m part of a big family.”
Though the Ghostwalkers are able to concentrate on battlefield tactics, they must set time aside to retain proficiency on Air Force core competencies and professional military education. In this respect the Ghostwalkers are unique in the career field.
“I talk to my friends from tech school all the time,” said Rendon. “They’ll tell me they’re about to work the night shift somewhere or a weekend shift. Our schedule is pretty much set at Monday through Friday.”
The set schedule gives the Airmen time to complete some of their training but they never get the hands-on practice with the non-combat aspects of the career field.
“Since we don’t have a law enforcement mission there is potential for us to be at a disadvantage testing against our peers,” said Hammons. “We make an effort to provide as much training on those aspects of the job as possible since most of the Airmen in the unit will leave one day and could very well have a law enforcement job.”
Though law enforcement is in the future for the Ghostwalkers, the present is their focus. Sergeant Hammons drills his Airmen daily, going over tactics and procedures, answering questions about his past deployments and what they can expect on their upcoming deployments. Until that day comes, many of them will go to Airborne school, train with the Army and hone their skills. After all, it’s those skills that make them something different than most cops, something special; a Ghostwalker.
Staff Sergeant J. Paul Croxon is an active duty Air Force journalist with Airman Magazine.