By Marlena Hartz: CNJ Staff Writer
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of reports from Hurlburt Field, Fla., which is home to Air Force Special Operations Command. The 16th Wing of AFSOC has been assigned to Cannon Air Force Base beginning next year.
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Jerome Klingaman was a young combat aviation advisor, thrown into the jungles of Laos, when he stumbled upon a major void in the U.S. military.
The last 13 years of his life, he has spent crafting a remedy.
Klingaman was part of a haphazard team of Air Force Special Operations advisors thrown together in 1966 to impart tactical wisdom to the Laos military. The mission consumed six months.
“We didn’t know each other; we hadn’t trained with each other. It took us all that time to get our act together,” said Klingaman, gray-haired now, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, with attributes more akin to a professor than a professional fighter.
More than two decades after departing Laos, Klingaman, then working as a military researcher, was recruited by the Air Force Special Operations Command to improve the foreign internal defense unit.
The retired combat advisor set about strengthening the 6th Squadron, a tiny group of mostly men housed and trained at Hurlburt Field, Fla., who follow in the steps of Klingaman, one of the founding members of the 6th, a squadron that can be traced to the World War II era.
“I never thought for a second that I’d have a chance to do it,” Klingaman said.
“We built (the unit) from nothing, one man and one skill set at a time.”
The strategy of the squadron is enablement. Members are deployed to countries around the globe to tactically assess, train, advise and assist foreign forces.
Air Force Special Operations officials said they are not sure yet if a replica of the 6th Squadron will stand up at Cannon.
The squadron operates with no more than a handful of planes, some, such as the C-47, not conventionally used by the U.S. military.
There are 84 men and a few women aboard the squadron.
In one photograph, the elite group stands, with backs rigid, under the shadow of three airplanes. The planes dwarf the little group, assembled in a tight triangular formation.
“This is not something that everybody wants to do. Those who do it, do it out a sense of adventure,” Klingaman said.
One must volunteer to join the squadron. Acceptance hinges on experience as an instructor in the military, he said.
Members of the squadron never travel alone. They must be accompanied by at least one other squadron member, although teams sent to foreign countries have ranged from six to 30 depending on the mission, officials said.
A single assignment can last months. The squadron schools foreign forces on how to use their air power to execute missions. The training circumvents restrictions on U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts, according to unclassified squadron descriptions.
It can also wean foreign forces from U.S. forces, something desperately needed in Iraq, said Klingaman, who would not say if the 6th Squadron was involved in that conflict.
“Nine/eleven happened and people realized the winning strategy in this global conflict is enablement,” he said.
“This is not a war we can win unilaterally.”
An additional 120 men, and perhaps some women, will be added to the Air Force Special Operations Foreign Internal Defense unit within the year, in accordance with the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, Klingaman said.
“Demand (for foreign internal defense experts) is out of control right now. We turn down far more missions than we accept because of lack of people,” he said.
In many regions, such as the Middle East, foreign forces would resist being trained by women, squadron officials said. But cultural differences in the lands the squadron operates are the norm, not the exception. The most glaring separation is one of individualism versus collectivism.
“We are looking for success. They are looking for personal relationships. As an American, you want to be outstanding. They want to survive,” Klingaman said.
Yet, “Our culture and our military are very respected. We may have political differences, but our technology is respected. Our representatives are physical embodiment of our culture,” he said.
Often, a squadron representative will be remembered for years after a training mission. Members of the native force will inquire about a representative by name years after he has departed, Klingaman said.
“It is such a richly rewarding life, imparting capabilities to others. I used to be a fighter pilot and I saw the whole world from the canopy of a Mach fighter.
“Teaching is the most rewarding job; it may not be the most savagely satisfying job, but it is the most rewarding,” he said.
Foreigners also leave deep stamps on squadron members.
When training in Laos with the Royal Air Force, Klingaman did not differentiate between himself and those he served.
“I wore their uniform, I flew under their flag, I had no identification. I lived their life, I partied with them, and I was prepared to die with them,” he said.
This seasoned man believes the need for foreign internal defense in the future will only grow. The units, he said, can sway the course of events overseas dramatically.
“The cost of operating this unit is very small and the return on the investment is enormous.”
He continued, “I think we have global responsibilities to preserve the economic viability of the western hemisphere. If you can’t maintain that, then you will wind up with economic chaos.”
Many people, Klingaman said, have asked him if imparting the American military wisdom to others could be dangerous.
He answers, “In any kind of strategically threatening situation, when your interests are at stake, sometimes you just have to take chances.
“To not, that is the council of despair.”