Military News

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Training in a combat zone

by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett
JBER Public Affairs

5/6/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska  -- Air Force Master Sgt. Lee Pentimone, like many of the military and civilian personnel assigned to the various forward operating bases in Afghanistan, kept his M9 Beretta strapped to his side and his armor within reach. The Taliban attacked randomly - sometimes during the day, sometimes at night - and Pentimone, then the training advisor for the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Wing, had to join the others in diving for shelter and arming up when they did. When the attack was over, he had to do his part guarding his immediate area until everything was declared clear.

"We got attacked a lot," said the 673d Communications Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of Radio Frequency Transmissions at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. "The first attack [I experienced] was a mortar attack in the first couple days. My first reaction was to think this was going to be a long year. Once my base got attacked and I happened to be at the next base over. They had a several-hour firefight with the terrorists. We didn't lose anybody, thankfully. The Taliban lost all theirs."

Then he had to try to get back to work; it was normal life for a year-long deployment in the desert that would earn him a Bronze Star.

"We'd start getting work done, something would happen and we'd have to duck and cover, wait until it was clear, and then try to get back to work," he said. "It's a good recipe for slow progress."

Pentimone began his career in the Air National Guard, and volunteered to switch to active duty in 2009, becoming a Basic Military Training instructor.

"I did the shadow program and saw what it was all about," he said. "I told my wife it was what I wanted to do. When she said it was okay, we did it. I'm very lucky; not many people would stick around for that. It's the best worst job you'll ever have."

"When you can see an Airman that was the trouble maker become the best Airman you have, when their parents don't recognize them and say 'I don't know what you did, but it's amazing' that gives you that pride," he said. "I did my four years; it went well and it ended well."

As his four-year assignment in BMT ended, Pentimone was deployed to Afghanistan.

"I went over there as an advisor," he said. "I started out working in the Afghan Air University, and I actually created their Officer Candidate School. There were tons of complications daily."

One of the complications included finding the right students.

"The cadets had to be tested and vetted to be accepted into the academy, to make sure the Taliban or similar didn't get into it," he said. "We had to test them on English. A hundred of those were supposed to become pilots, and in order to become a pilot they had to speak a certain amount of English. We had to test more than 2,000 people - it took us like two months, three or four hours in the morning and three or four hours in the afternoon, to do that testing. That was probably the worst."

He found the officers were used to doing most tasks themselves, from turning wrenches to flying, while the enlisted primarily did administrative and security duties.

"By doing OCS, we were giving their NCOs and airmen more responsibilities," he said. "[The officers] were happy to learn the leadership stuff, but they didn't want to give up what they had. You'd have a general who had flown all his life, and he didn't want to give that up."

They weren't happy about leading an NCO to turn wrenches instead of doing it themselves, he said.

"That was very challenging. I advised a lieutenant colonel directly who said 'this is never going to work' but through those six months he got things ironed out and made it work."

Pentimone said his BMT instructor experience was likely part of why he was picked for the assignment.

"Being able to read people - to understand the different personalities and cultures - that's what you do [in BMT] all the time," he said. "You have to take all those personalities and cultures, put them all together, and still come out to the end goal. It was the same thing with the Afghans. You could see that division in them, and you'd have to figure out how to get them to accomplish tasks.

Pentimone completed his work with Afghan Air University after spending half of his year there.

"I hope I helped them; I know I changed the lives of the Afghans that I worked with," he said. "The last six months I was the communications superintendent for the wing. I also advised the general in charge of the communications for the Air Force in that area. I got to use my past knowledge saying this is what you need and this is how to do it."

He then became the communications superintendent for the remainder of the year.

"There were very few of us and we were in charge of maybe 300 [computers]," he said. "Almost every location had it and we had to maintain it. It was pretty interesting to try to keep up. I had communications equipment in the convoys that went out, so I usually tried to go with them, or at least make sure their gear was good to go. Being a BMTI, I was used to the fast pace, always having something to do."

Now assigned to JBER, Pentimone has been awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan.

"He's a pretty impressive guy," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Russell Handy, 11th Air Force commander. "[He had] exceptional service in a combat zone at great personal risk. The first six months he was there, he helped stand up the Afghanistan Air University. We use to think that sort of duty was not dangerous - not anymore. Anything you do in that [area of responsibility] is extremely dangerous."

"I think it was definitely worth going," Pentimone said. "There's so much that happens there; you're a huge family. I've made some great contacts and friends. I'm glad that a general said I was worthy of [this medal], that makes me proud knowing I did my job well."

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