From my 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, I spent four years with a unit responsible for actions not attributed to them in newspapers or magazines. The men and women of this unit did their jobs with a quiet professionalism romanticized (usually fictionally) in movies and stories. Operations carried out by this unit were discussed in secure rooms, accessible only by a select few. Situation reports released to the public were heavily sanitized to protect those involved. Stories of their exploits were minimized, details were blurred, and recognition was generic. These men, however, were responsible for some of the most dangerous, effective, and heroic actions that have occurred since the start of the War on Terror.
The origins of today’s Air Force Special Operations units trace back to World War II. The units were not founded in ceremony or some general’s desire to have a legacy. They were founded in cooperation. Cooperation between members of the Army Air Forces who needed to make an impact on Axis forces without the bureaucracy involved in normal operations.
The “Carpetbaggers” of the Air Force
Two men, John Alison and Phil Cochran, clandestinely worked with British forces in the Pacific theater to conduct operations behind Japanese enemy lines. The British forces learned that these Americans could take their aircraft behind the lines, destroy their targets, and get back out. If they were not successful the first time, they would take whatever equipment they had at their disposal and make it work to complete their objectives. These men conducted operations unheard of in the war. While they operated against Japanese targets, others like them were harassing Axis forces in Europe. These men became known as the “Carpetbaggers.”
The men who fought with the Carpetbaggers possessed skills unknown to the men they fought for. With the ability to somehow attack and harass the enemy from the rear, they struck fear into the minds of the Axis.
The units’ creation arose from a need to protect those who could not protect themselves. They had no meetings to determine who they were, or what or how they did it. There were simply men who saw a need and became the tools required to address it. Thus, these Carpetbaggers were born, to combat those who would perpetrate atrocity on the world.
Officially, these units of special operators were disbanded after the war’s end. Unofficially, these men stayed active, training and preparing for when they would once again be needed to clandestinely protect American interests and those who couldn’t do so themselves. They operated behind the scenes during the Korean War and with indigenous fighters during Vietnam. Meanwhile, these mythical figures developed aircraft configurations that supported their needs and ways to employ whatever forces were available in the most effective ways. They were not well known outside their own circles and not at all to the public as a whole. Though their exploits were not publicized and their names were not known, their myth grew within the military community.
A Group of Airmen Who Set Themselves Apart
The Air Commandos built themselves on a clan basis rather than on military hierarchy. This reliance on the idea of “us and them” made the Air Commandos an insular group. The more they relied on one another’s skills and abilities, the more they were able to employ those abilities. Rather than an organization that took its orders and plans from an overseeing command structure, these commandos were decentralized and relied on their own innovations and ideas to conduct operations. They did not conform to the standard hierarchical structures, thus separating themselves even more from the “ordinary” men and women of the Air Force. This unconventional thinking and anarchistic attitude only served to heighten their mythological status.
After the events of September 11, 2001, the Air Commandos were once again needed to stand against the enemies of the United States. While the world watched newscasts showing columns of clean-cut men and women in uniform boarding military transports to take the fight to the enemy, Air Commandos were already flying low over their mountain bases in Afghanistan.
Air Commandos Are the Unassuming Sort
These commandos do not look like those seen on TV. They do not have rank insignias on their shoulders, nor name tapes stitched over their uniforms’ breast pockets. In fact, they often do not wear anything that resembles a uniform. They do not have crew-cuts and clean-shaven faces. They often look like the man behind you in line at the grocery store. That man who sets outside the gas station, asking for money for gas, could easily be the same who jumped from a C-130 and landed in the midst of a terrorist camp, eliminating every living thing in sight. This same man could have been on the HH-60 helicopter that landed near a contested Afghan airfield in 2002 and rescued seven survivors of a unit pinned down by 30-40 Taliban fighters. These Air Commandos are the ones who fill whatever role needed, whenever needed.
During the War on Terror, the members of Air Force Special Operations Command have been ready to serve “as the point of the sword” wielded by the U.S. Department of Defense. One of their mottos is “These things we do so that others may live.” Whether they must kill or rescue so “others may live,” these Air Commandos fill a role. The fact the world-at-large does not know or understand their actions is irrelevant to their existence. Whether foreign mothers portray them as monsters to scare their children or as saviors who dispatch the monsters known as Taliban and al-Qaeda, the myth of the Air Commando is established quietly, in the shadows.
This article was written by Brian Hudosn. Brian retired from the Air Force as a Master Sergeant after 20 years of active duty.
“Air Force Special Operations Command Brief History.” Air Force Special Operations Command, U.S. Air Force, https://www.afsoc.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/495017/air-force-special-operations-command-brief-history/
Huston, Brian. Organizational Culture in Air Force Special Operations Command: Myths and Realities. 2018. Naval Postgraduate School. Master’s Thesis.
Tourtelot, Lisa. “These things we do so others may live.” Stars and Stripes. June 12, 2004. https://www.stripes.com/news/special-reports/these-things-we-do-so-that-others-may-live-1.288206
Wooley, Michael W. “America’s Quiet Professionals.” Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2005