Take pride in being an Air Commando

By Tech. Sgt. Gloria Wilson: 27th SOW Public Affairs

Three amazing men, U.S. Army Green Berets, recently died in an Afghanistan improvised explosive device blast. One I didn’t know, one I knew in passing, and one was someone I playfully called a cross between Eddie Munster and the guy from Twilight (because of his bright eyes). You’d probably think so too if you saw how he looked in person and maybe even add the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland because he was always smiling a huge grin that came easily and often. His name was Marty.

I had the privilege of knowing some of these men and their brothers-in-arms from my last deployment, where I was attached to U.S. Army Special Forces in Afghanistan. Getting to know any of the guys there and being accepted wasn’t an easy task, because as far as some of the SF team members were concerned I had “three strikes” from the beginning: I’m in the Air Force, but not something like a Tactical Air Control Party specialist or Combat Controller, I’m female, and my Air Force specialty is public affairs.

So why did some consider those things strikes? Overall, because at first not everyone understood what I brought to the fight and how I fit into the mission. They also feared that if I wasn’t prepared and trained, I could cause someone to lose their life. I understood this, and although it took time and hard work, eventually they understood me. But how did I do that?

First, I had to learn what everyone else brought to the mission. I had to understand every person’s job. Luckily I had training and experience from my previous career field so I understood convoys, clearing rooms, and weapons. This knowledge set a foundation to show them “you know what, this girl knows her stuff.” Next, I knew my current career field well. I understood the bigger picture, the counter of enemy propaganda by providing accurate information in a timely manner, what was releasable and what wasn’t, to protect identities and avoid creating targets. I also knew that mentoring my Afghan counterparts was essential to Afghanistan’s self-sustainment once U.S. and coalition forces left. Based on that I explained to them the following: my job isn’t to make anyone look bad, and it isn’t to publish sensitive information that could get someone killed, instead it’s to tell the stories others aren’t, it’s to help the public understand the great things being done, and it’s to ensure the media doesn’t release anything that could compromise security and safety. Finally, I made myself available wherever I could and never took the easy road.

If I wanted a story or pictures from a mission I geared up and joined them. I went to a vast number of schools, shuras, villages, and training missions with Afghan Commandos, Afghan Special Forces, as well as U.S. and Coalition Special Forces. I filled various and multiple roles as needed. I provided a PA presence, documented, provided training for the Afghans in my specialty, and told the story. Granted I wasn’t out going to an objective doing what elite forces like Green Berets do, but that was their job, and it’s a job they do extremely well, with honor, skill, and pride. My job was to highlight these heroes, report the progress made in Afghanistan, and let the people know what was going on, even if it wasn’t always good news.

In addition to the job, physical fitness mattered, too and the entire camp witnessed my dedication to running and working out in general. I’d run past Afghan Commandos doing their unit runs and ruck marches and I was told by some of the Afghans that I helped change their perception of women. I beat some of the U.S. military members, guys new to camp, when we went up the goat trails carved on the side of the mountain, both in my ballistic vest and without. Doing those things mattered for both the purpose of earning respect and being fit enough to survive. When you’re dropped off in the middle of a known insurgent hotspot and have a long distance to go wearing full battle-rattle, you better not slow everyone down because you’re not in shape.

But why did being accepted matter to me and why am I even mentioning this? Because without that acceptance I wouldn’t have realized the depth of how important our jobs are as military members, and my life wouldn’t be richer for knowing amazing men, who because of their jobs and missions lay down their lives at an alarming rate. I wouldn’t have truly understood, that as part of Air Force Special Operations Command and being stationed at Cannon Air Force Base, I am part of something larger than most people can comprehend. I was attached to people who are the heroes we read about. And if I wasn’t here at Cannon, part of the unit I’m in, I wouldn’t have made lasting friendships. I wouldn’t have those still in Afghanistan who I worry and pray for every day. Even though that’s not easy, I wouldn’t change knowing them. I am a better person for it.

However, much on the sidelines, whether I was allowed a glimpse into their world, or had the door actually opened with others, I “get” the bonds they share. I cried for the loss of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Martin Apolinar, U.S. Army Capt. Joseph W. Schultz and U.S. Army Sgt. Aaron Blasjo, and then I cried for all the others we lost before them. My heart broke when I heard the news of their deaths, which ironically occurred on Memorial Day weekend. Their deaths scared me because there are others in Special Forces who I am closer to.

So if you hear someone complain about being stationed at Cannon, or if someone seems to have lost their way as a military member, set them on the right path. Make sure they understand we are Air Commandos and not only are our brethren doing amazing things, we are too.