Solving the ILO mystery

FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- As the global war on terrorism continues, many Airmen are finding themselves in different deployed roles. Referred to as "in lieu of" taskings, these rotations would normally be filled by Soldiers, but thousands of Airmen have gotten the call to support these operations. In fact, due to a recent surge, Airmen are probably filling around 5,000 ILO taskings, according to Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley.

Let's face it, for many Airmen, the thought of deploying in what is traditionally an Army mission is not exactly a cause for joy. Stories from when ILO taskings first began of Airmen sent to do one mission but diverted to drive a truck or guard a prisoner have fueled a lingering, negative perception of these deployments. While I have no doubt Airmen were not properly utilized, particularly during initial ILO rotations, it's time we change the negative, "What am I getting myself into" mentality associated with ILO missions.

Instead, we first need to trust that Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael Moseley and our senior leaders will continue to draw a red line on Army ILO requests for Airmen that do not fit our skill-sets. Second, we as Airmen need to see these missions not as "in lieu of" taskings, which suggests we are sitting around waiting with nothing better to do, but as "noble call response" or NCR missions.

Why NCR, you may ask? The answer is simple: because these are situations where the Army, in the midst of a heavy operations tempo, has made a valid request for assistance, and the Air Force has answered with Airmen who will directly support the fight in the global war on terror. In my first year of command, I have seen three examples of why I'm confident NCR is the right term.

First, Tech. Sgt. Dwight Bechel, of the 314th Training Squadron, recently returned from a 179-day ILO tasking to Iraq. An intelligence NCO by trade, Sergeant Bechel was on a Documentation Exploitation mission to rapidly exploit captured material to provide warfighters situational awareness and influence combat operations against enemy insurgents. In his Letter of Evaluation as he came home, his deployed leadership noted he supported more than 400 interrogations, leading to six high-value individuals sent to long term detention. He also found valuable data in captured enemy items, leading to twelve quick reaction raids and 75 possible terrorists being detained. As Sergeant Bechel, happy to be home but proud of the work he and his fellow Airmen did in Iraq, humbly put it to me, "We did our part to keep U.S. military members and Iraqi civilians safe by getting bad guys off the street." Hmm....score one for what is better labeled a "noble call response" mission.

Second, Master Sgt. Rodney Thompson, of the 314th Training Squadron, just returned stateside last week on his mid-tour from Iraq. Sergeant Thompson is an intelligence senior NCO deployed on a one year ILO rotation as part of the Weapons Intelligence Teams. The WIT mission is to provide Army Brigade Combat Teams and Regimental Combat Teams an improvised explosive device intelligence collection capability to support intelligence analysis of bomb makers and bomb-making networks. As the NCO in charge of his unit, Sergeant Thompson has already experienced many highs such as seeing WIT members revamp procedures to proactively and more thoroughly include detainees in databases. He's also witnessed improved improvised explosive device countermeasures put in place in response to WIT team-supported analysis. At the same time, he's lived through the lows as well, such as the response to a vehicle-borne IED where the terrorists used children to get through security before detonating the IED. Is the work Sergeant Thompson and his fellow WIT members accomplishing noble? You had better believe it.

Last, but certainly not least, the 314th Training Squadron supported 113 Airmen on temporary duty to Fort Huachuca for several months last year undergoing Interrogator and Intelligence Analyst training. These Airmen came together as I've never seen before, rallying behind a stateside tragedy when one of their own, Staff Sgt. Mike Siggins, was killed in a motorcycle fatality. The group's collective, positive spirit was an inspiration to Sergeant Siggins' family, who visited after his death; this spirit also carried the group through the intensive training here. Since they left last November, they have conducted more than 500 interrogations each month while also participating in a Hearts and Minds program that distributes toys and clothes to families visiting detainees in Iraq. There is no question these Airmen have responded to a noble call.

These are but three of what I'm sure are many, many uplifting stories out there about Airmen doing great work in missions they never dreamed of doing a few years ago. In many ways, that is what this global war on terror is all about: the U.S. military working together and pooling its resources to respond to a persistent, unconventional threat in a team-first, "let's kill bad guys and save American lives" manner.

So, the next time you hear of another one of those "ILO taskings," shift your mindset from any negative thoughts to positive ones, realizing the Air Force senior leadership is validating these taskings as, what I believe, are "noble call response" missions...and those Airmen responding are truly making a difference!