Since I started writing at SOFREP, I have been flooded with emails asking a lot of questions about life as a combat controller. Apparently there still isn’t a lot of information out there, and if there is, it seems to be contradictory at times and not consolidated. So this “CCT 101” series will be an attempt to address some of the recurring questions I see from a lot of different people. As always, if you see something I haven’t brought up, hit me up in the comments section or email me at [email protected] I’ll try to get back with you ASAP and either give you the answer or include your query in my next article.

Combat controller: enlisted versus officer

Unlike many other professions in the military, enlisted and officer combat controllers train and live side by side for the majority of training. One of the only differences in training is that during Air Traffic Control School, officers go to more of a management type of class that teaches the academics and fundamentals the enlisted guys get, with the addition of some big-picture airfield stuff.

Officers are given the title STO, or Special Tactics Officer. They have some stricter entry requirements (physically as well as academically) and are expected to show up as the most fit person on a team, ready to lead from the front. During the pipeline, the STOs are given complete control of their team, but cadre can be quick to transfer leadership to an NCO or even an airman fresh off the street. Everyone gets a shot at fine-tuning their leadership.

Pay

All told, the pay isn’t that far off. Enlisted CCTs receive (once qualified) extra incentive pay each month to include demolition, freefall, dive, and special duty pay. Additionally, the enlisted are eligible for bonuses in the 6-figure range for an additional 4-5 year commitment.

Officers don’t get that special duty pay, nor the reenlistment bonuses, but obviously receive a much higher base pay. In the end, if you’re deciding between the two strictly because of money, officers are going to make some more.

Deployments

Both CCTs and STOs will get their deployments in. Both are eligible to train for JTAC slots and fill them overseas. Typically, STOs are getting 1-2 rotations in before they are forced to return to their squadrons and oversee the management of a team or multiple teams. They are then responsible for managing finances, making sure training is on track, and scheduling team trips. They still keep their own skills sharp, but their new primary role is looking after their guys. If that means pulling yourself off a fun team skydive trip to fit a guy in there that needs the training, then you do it. Selfless STOs get noticed and get respect.

CCTs will deploy any number of times. There are some guys that have deployed once a year for at least 6 months since this war began. CCTs are in high demand and there will always be a mission for them. Deployments can wear on families though, and like many SOF career fields, divorce rates can be high. Be prepared to be gone. A lot. This is either a young, single man’s game, or for someone that has an extremely strong wife at home that can more than cope with long distance.

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Whether you’re a CCT or a STO, when you attach to a team you fill the same role. You’re the JTAC and if you earn respect from your ODA or SEAL team, then you will get it. A lot of the team guys will never even know your rank if you don’t announce it.

Life in general

You can’t go wrong picking either career. Enlisted has it’s perks, as does going officer. Unlike other jobs in the military, these are going to mix. You’re gonna drink with your officer friend, and he’s gonna drink with his enlisted buddy. You’re gonna look out for each other and your families are going to be friends. Fraternization really doesn’t apply when you both understand the chain of command, and don’t cross any lines. Blurring them is okay, but only one guy should have the final say. And to be honest, a STO might not command that authority from battle-hardened CCT vets if he is a dick and/or has never deployed. So sometimes that final authority is the CCT. But delivery is key. I’m not saying that there’s a lot of “insubordination” going on on the teams, but it’s just done a little differently in the SOF world.

Becoming a STO means leading from the front. But it also means really listening to the guys that have been in the business for a hot minute. You aren’t leading people that don’t want to be there. You’re leading warriors, teammates, and friends.

And being a CCT doesn’t mean waiting around on instructions before you act. You’re an individual, and your insights and actions are appreciated. Most of the time.

Whether you choose CCT or STO, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you’re born to follow orders- maybe tweak them a little- and charge straight ahead, maybe you go CCT. If you’re more of a thinker and appreciate being a part of every single decision making process, maybe you choose STO. Both will mission creep on the other occasionally. And both are solid choices.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force by Airman 1st Class Kyla Gifford