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Airmen vie for slots in Army Air Assault course

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii (AFNS) -- The sound of 12 Airmen chanting "air assault, air assault, air assault" over and over with every left step as they marched double time through the woods was audible from a distance.

They'd been on duty since 4:30 a.m., completed an Army physical training test, and were about to face "The Tough One," an obstacle named for its physical and mental requirements in the mountainous terrain of Wahiawa, Hawaii.

But this was just a try-out. After two days of being pushed to their physical and mental limits Feb. 1 and 2, 647th Security Forces Squadron Airmen from here will know whether or not they will be eligible to attend an even more challenging course in May.

"Air Assault is a two-week Army course," said Staff Sgt. Brett Lafreniere, the 647th SFS NCO in charge of training. "It's actually a pretty difficult course in the Army. Over those two weeks, they'll have to complete four-, eight-, and 12-mile road marches; rappell off (UH-60) Blackhawk helicopters from 90 feet in the air; make Blackhawk sling loads; learn about combat assault operations; and undergo rigorous testing both with written (evaluations) and hands-on practicals."

The Airmen do all of this, to earn the Army Air Assault badge -- something most Airmen never have the opportunity to wear.

After two sets of try-outs, Sergeant Lafreniere will be able to determine which Airmen can start training for the upcoming course, hosted by the 25th Infantry Division and 25th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Those trying out not only volunteered but also had to be recommended by their flight leadership, medically cleared, and in excellent physical condition, he said. These are the topmost Airmen and NCOs in their flight or on staff.

"These two days are to assess where they're at right now," he said. "They don't have to be the most physically fit, just show determination and heart. Everything has a purpose, whether to put some stress on them or to mirror the actual course."

As long as they show determination, whether they fall in last place, first place or the middle of the pack, Sergeant Lafreniere said he can work with them and train them over the next three months so that they can proudly represent the Air Force in 16 out of 480 slots at the Air Assault courses.

After a long, hard day of training, Tech. Sgt. Pablo Gonzalez, the 647th Security Forces Squadron assistant Bravo flight chief, said he was feeling "pretty tired, but pretty motivated."

"It's good training," he said. "I've never done anything like this. We don't get this training very often because it's not specific to security forces; but I think it's a great opportunity and will further my career and those of everyone else on the team."

The Tough One -- the rope climb -- was the hardest part for Senior Airman Stephen Biddinger, a 647th SFS base defense operations center controller. He trimmed down after weighing 245 pounds, and he's now trying to get out of the security forces career field and go into pararescue. He said he is happy to expand his horizons now and gain more experience, and wearing the Air Assault badge will give him extra credibility as a future NCO.

"It is a good leadership opportunity," Sergeant Lafreniere said. "Some may be put in front of or in charge of up to 40 Soldiers at a time. It helps any time we're doing joint operations downrange or back here doing joint training. When we wear a badge they've earned in the Army, it shows we stepped out of our normal Air Force roles to take on extra leadership and challenges."

The 16 Airmen chosen to complete the Air Assault course have three months of tough training to look forward to before May.

"They'll hate me for these two days, but they'll say it's the most rewarding two days of their careers because they were yelled at, there was pressure, but they succeeded," Sergeant Lafreniere said. "It's cool to see them start to fail but then see them mentally come out of it and push through the adversity. As long as they're competitive, they won't fail."
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