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A history of 'there first' For AF special ops

After thousands of Iranian militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, 66 Americans were seized and held hostage. The attempt to rescue them ended in disaster at the Desert One refueling site in April 1980. As a result, the Holloway Commission convened to analyze why the mission failed and recommend corrective actions. This led to the gradual reorganization and the birth of United States Special Operations Forces. (courtesy photo)

After thousands of Iranian militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, 66 Americans were seized and held hostage. The attempt to rescue them ended in disaster at the Desert One refueling site in April 1980. As a result, the Holloway Commission convened to analyze why the mission failed and recommend corrective actions. This led to the gradual reorganization and the birth of United States Special Operations Forces. (courtesy photo)

A group of U.S. Army Rangers gather their gear at Point Salines airfield during Operation Urgent Fury. In October 1983, 23rd Air Force participated in the seven-day operation that led to the successful rescue of Americans from Grenada. A 1st Special Operations Wing Combat Talon crew earned the Mackay Trophy and a Spectre crew earned the Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award for their efforts. (courtesy photo)

A group of U.S. Army Rangers gather their gear at Point Salines airfield during Operation Urgent Fury. In October 1983, 23rd Air Force participated in the seven-day operation that led to the successful rescue of Americans from Grenada. A 1st Special Operations Wing Combat Talon crew earned the Mackay Trophy and a Spectre crew earned the Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award for their efforts. (courtesy photo)

Manual Noriega, Panamanian leader, general and dictator, is taken on board an MC-130 Combat Talon during Operation Just Cause in December 1989. He was flown to the United States to stand trial. During Just Cause, special tactics combat controllers and pararescuemen integrated into combat units. The MC-130 pictured is presently displayed in the Hurlburt Field Air Park. (courtesy photo)

Manual Noriega, Panamanian leader, general and dictator, is taken on board an MC-130 Combat Talon during Operation Just Cause in December 1989. He was flown to the United States to stand trial. During Just Cause, special tactics combat controllers and pararescuemen integrated into combat units. The MC-130 pictured is presently displayed in the Hurlburt Field Air Park. (courtesy photo)

Following the Gulf War, coalition forces provided humanitarian aid to Kurds on the Iraqi/Turkish border in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort. In addition, Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft stood alert for personnel recovery and various other missions in support of Operation Southern Watch. During July 1992, AFSOC units began participation in Operations Provide Promise and Deny Flight, the humanitarian relief effort and no fly zone security in the Balkans. (courtesy photo)

Following the Gulf War, coalition forces provided humanitarian aid to Kurds on the Iraqi/Turkish border in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort. In addition, Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft stood alert for personnel recovery and various other missions in support of Operation Southern Watch. During July 1992, AFSOC units began participation in Operations Provide Promise and Deny Flight, the humanitarian relief effort and no fly zone security in the Balkans. (courtesy photo)

During Operation Assured Response, Special Operations Forces successfully evacuate more than 2,000 people out of the United States Embassy in Liberia, Africa. Operating in a hostile fire environment, SOF personnel conducted dozens of rotary wing evacuation flights using MH-53Js and overhead fire support sorties from AC-130H Spectres, often vectoring friendly aircraft through small arms and rocket propelled grenades. For their efforts, Pave Low crews were presented the Tunner Award as the outstanding strategic airlift crew of the year. (courtesy photo)

During Operation Assured Response, Special Operations Forces successfully evacuate more than 2,000 people out of the United States Embassy in Liberia, Africa. Operating in a hostile fire environment, SOF personnel conducted dozens of rotary wing evacuation flights using MH-53Js and overhead fire support sorties from AC-130H Spectres, often vectoring friendly aircraft through small arms and rocket propelled grenades. For their efforts, Pave Low crews were presented the Tunner Award as the outstanding strategic airlift crew of the year. (courtesy photo)

Two refugee children watch as relief supplies are unloaded from U.S. Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters at Camp Hope near Fier, Albania, on May 13, 1999, during Operation Sustain Hope. Sustain Hope brought in food, water, medicine, relief supplies, and established camps for refugees fleeing from the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michelle Leonard)

Two refugee children watch as relief supplies are unloaded from U.S. Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters at Camp Hope near Fier, Albania, on May 13, 1999, during Operation Sustain Hope. Sustain Hope brought in food, water, medicine, relief supplies, and established camps for refugees fleeing from the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michelle Leonard)

An MC-130 participates in Mozambique flood relief effort in March 2000 during Operation Atlas Response. Relief operations focused on providing food, water and medical supplies to more than 650,000 people in Africa.  Joint Task Force personnel mapped "hot spots" where people were at risk. They also used infrared cameras to identify road and rail breaks that could be repaired quickly to expedite aid delivery instead of relying almost solely on airlift. (courtesy photo)

An MC-130 participates in Mozambique flood relief effort in March 2000 during Operation Atlas Response. Relief operations focused on providing food, water and medical supplies to more than 650,000 people in Africa. Joint Task Force personnel mapped "hot spots" where people were at risk. They also used infrared cameras to identify road and rail breaks that could be repaired quickly to expedite aid delivery instead of relying almost solely on airlift. (courtesy photo)

Tech. Sgt. Lem Torres, 38th Rescue Squadron pararecueman, and a young boy are lifted to safety from the roof of the child’s flooded home after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Tech. Sgt. Lem Torres, 38th Rescue Squadron pararecueman, and a young boy are lifted to safety from the roof of the child’s flooded home after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Tech. Sgt. Corey Fossbender, 20th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron arial gunner, checks his mini gun prior to the last combat mission of the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter Sept. 27, 2008 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The operation began in March 2003, when AFSOC deployed forces to Southwest Asia to remove Saddam Hussein from power and liberate the Iraqi people. The command's personnel and aircraft teamed with other SOF and conventional forces to quickly bring down Saddam Hussein's government by May 2003. To ensure the seeds of democracy had time to grow in Iraq, AFSOC forces continued to conduct operations well into 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

Tech. Sgt. Corey Fossbender, 20th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron arial gunner, checks his mini gun prior to the last combat mission of the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter Sept. 27, 2008 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The operation began in March 2003, when AFSOC deployed forces to Southwest Asia to remove Saddam Hussein from power and liberate the Iraqi people. The command's personnel and aircraft teamed with other SOF and conventional forces to quickly bring down Saddam Hussein's government by May 2003. To ensure the seeds of democracy had time to grow in Iraq, AFSOC forces continued to conduct operations well into 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

Air Force Special Operations Command combat controllers give a C-130 Hercules take off clearance and provide air traffic control during a mission to establish and assess an airfield at a forward deployed location in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. By the end of September 2001, AFSOC deployed forces to southwest Asia to help confront and remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, along with the Taliban-supported al Qaida terrorist organization headed by Osama Bin Laden. AFSOC airpower delivered special tactics forces to the battle ground and they in turn focused U.S. airpower and allowed Afghanistan's Northern Alliance ground forces to dispatch the Taliban and al Qaida from Afghanistan. In addition to its support in Afghanistan, AFSOC personnel also deployed to the Philippines to help aid that country's efforts against terrorism. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Lock)
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Air Force Special Operations Command combat controllers give a C-130 Hercules take off clearance and provide air traffic control during a mission to establish and assess an airfield at a forward deployed location in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. By the end of September 2001, AFSOC deployed forces to southwest Asia to help confront and remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, along with the Taliban-supported al Qaida terrorist organization headed by Osama Bin Laden. AFSOC airpower delivered special tactics forces to the battle ground and they in turn focused U.S. airpower and allowed Afghanistan's Northern Alliance ground forces to dispatch the Taliban and al Qaida from Afghanistan. In addition to its support in Afghanistan, AFSOC personnel also deployed to the Philippines to help aid that country's efforts against terrorism. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Lock)

A U.S. Air Force combat controller contacts the special tactics operation center by radio while conducting a drop zone survey in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 24, 2010, during Operation Unified Response. After Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, combat controllers opened and controlled the International Airport at Port-au-Prince. Pararescuemen conducted search and rescue mission and recovered victims trapped in collapsed buildings and debris. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock)
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A U.S. Air Force combat controller contacts the special tactics operation center by radio while conducting a drop zone survey in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 24, 2010, during Operation Unified Response. After Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, combat controllers opened and controlled the International Airport at Port-au-Prince. Pararescuemen conducted search and rescue mission and recovered victims trapped in collapsed buildings and debris. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock)

Senior Airman Steven Nizbet, 320th Special Tactics Squadron pararescueman, looks for trapped survivors March 16, 2011, at Sendai Airport, Japan during Operation Tomodachi. After an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11, it triggered a tsunami. The disasters killed an estimated 16,000 people and destroyed coastal villages, towns and cities in the Tohoku region. Within hours of the devastation, combat controllers opened the airport to ensure personnel and cargo could enter the country. At the peak of the operation, the Defense Department had 24,000 personnel, 190 aircraft, and 24 Navy ships supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)
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Senior Airman Steven Nizbet, 320th Special Tactics Squadron pararescueman, looks for trapped survivors March 16, 2011, at Sendai Airport, Japan during Operation Tomodachi. After an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11, it triggered a tsunami. The disasters killed an estimated 16,000 people and destroyed coastal villages, towns and cities in the Tohoku region. Within hours of the devastation, combat controllers opened the airport to ensure personnel and cargo could enter the country. At the peak of the operation, the Defense Department had 24,000 personnel, 190 aircraft, and 24 Navy ships supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Although Air Force Special Operations Command was officially established in 1990, its history dates all the way back to World War II. From that time, Air Commandos have been heavily called upon for a wide assortment of missions - missions nobody else could do.

"Since 1975, at the end of the Vietnam conflict, Air Force Special Operations have been involved in some sort of contingency operation, except for three years," said Herb Mason, AFSOC historian. "We've supported the U.N., been in many countries in Africa, Haiti, Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan."

The lessons learned from Operation Rice Bowl and Urgent Fury in the early 1980s created a push for United States Special Operations Command, which activated April 16, 1987. Three years later, AFSOC was formed as its air component.

Then, just months later, Desert Storm started.

"Desert Storm was the first time AFSOC had the opportunity to shine (as an official Air Force command)," said Tim Brown, AFSOC deputy historian. "All of our assets were deployed and involved with the liberation of Kuwait. Our MH-53s escorted U.S. Army Apache helicopters into Iraq to take out Iraqi radar sites at the very start of the U.S. and coalition air campaign."

Since then, AFSOC has been involved in more than 25 major operations.

"The number is constantly growing," Brown said.

Some fights were short lived; however, some have been lengthy engagements. One example is Operation Enduring Freedom, which has been a continuous fight since October 2001.

Although every command brings something valuable to these operations, AFSOC is usually there first.

"We're the door kickers," Mason said. "We kick in the door, we get there first, we're on the ground, and we do what's asked of us."

The job gets done at all costs, according to retired combat controller, Wayne Norrad, 24th Special Operations Wing.

"Our motto says it all... we're first there, so that others may live," Norrad said.

During Operation Anaconda, Tech. Sgt. John Chapman and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham lived up to the motto.

"There are people still alive because of Jason's work as a pararescueman on that mission and John's tenacity to know that it was a dire situation and that someone had to take out the fighters and gun nest," Norrad said.

As a combat controller, Chapman was there first, and as the pararescuman, Cunningham was providing medical treatment so others may live.

Since 9/11, AFSOC has memorialized 31 Airmen - 26 enlisted and five officers, Mason said.

Even with great leadership, extensive training, and a strong commitment, Special Tactics Airmen may face a great deal of risk during their careers.

"It's the way the SOF mission is," Norrad said. "There is no one else to go to. We have to make it happen."

However, the added risk is not always a negative, according to Norrad.

"It keeps people excited, it keeps them on their toes," he said. "It seems like you are closer to what's going on in the world."

From World War II until today, Air Commandos continue to be at the tip of the spear, and a step ahead in a changing world.

Engage

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