Military News

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tinker sergeant on path to elite combat controller status

by Kimberly Woodruff
72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

9/11/2015 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- One Tinker Airman is proving you don't have to be the biggest to be a part of the special operations combat control team, but you do have to be the toughest.

After watching the Navy SEALs and combat controller teams jump out of aircraft while he was stationed overseas, Staff Sgt. Alex Frew said he felt like he wasn't doing enough.

"I felt obligated to do more," he said.

His obligation led him to train to become a combat controller, which is the Air Force equivalent to the Navy SEALs and the Army's Green Berets. Combat controllers sometimes find themselves in the most hostile environments directing air traffic and alerting pilots and command of enemy forces on the ground.

Frew, with the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex command support staff, said Airmen have to "have it" to make it as a combat controller, and not everyone can handle the pressure.  In fact, most of the men chosen for training don't even complete it. In Frew's assessment course, 13 of the 25 made it through. In the end, the sergeant and three others were chosen.

The training to be a combat controller is very demanding and can last two years. The Air Force job description reads like the qualifications of an action movie hero: "Must perform precision parachute jumps to penetrate hostile areas, be proficient in water operations using both scuba and amphibious techniques, learn to be proficient on motorcycles, snowmobiles and skis, learn to rappel and fast-rope, be an expert with maps and compasses, be capable of overland travel in any environment, function under the most demanding weather conditions, and establish assault zones and direct aircraft within those zones.  Also, a combat controller must be a Federal Aviation Administration certified air traffic controller."

Frew has completed the initial assessment, selection, air traffic control school, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape and airborne training. He was the honor graduate in both air traffic control and airborne training. The sergeant leaves in January for combat control school, where he will earn his beret after completion. After CCS, he will face 15 additional months of school.

"It has been great so far, a really fun time," said Frew. "I don't know what it takes for a person to get through, but you've got to love the terrible parts and learn to smile when things get bad, otherwise the days will be too long and you won't make it."

At 30 years old, the sergeant is older than most of his counterparts.

"The 18-year-olds in class called me 'Grandpa Frew,'" he said. "I think I was a driving force for them. They didn't want to be outdone by an older guy."

Frew said fighting through injuries was one of the most difficult parts of training.

"I pulled a tendon in my hip flexor, but still had to push through to do the training," he said. "Finning, or using just your legs and no arms in the water, was excruciating, but I just had to deal with it."

It sounds cliché, but it really is a lot more mental than physical, the sergeant said.

He also had a hard time developing himself as a leader working in a team.

"There were two of us, and I was the enforcer," Frew said. "But when the lieutenant left, it was just me playing bad cop all the time. I had to find a balance. There is always room for improvement, so I was able to finally gain a lot of skill from it."

Before being accepted, a Pararescueman asked Frew about his childhood. Frew explained that he had experienced hard times growing up. The PJ assured him that the people who went through tough times, those with disadvantages and those who had to deal with adversity were the ones who could make it through this type of intense training.

"It just wasn't as difficult for me," said Frew. "I saw some of the physically fit guys that couldn't handle it mentally. If you grew up with adversity, it seemed easier to deal with what the cadre threw at you."

Frew has indeed seen his share of bad times. Born in a small town in Illinois, his family broke up when he was young. His dad raised him and his sisters and times were hard.

"It was tough to get time with dad, but the times we did have together were the most memorable," said Frew. "I knew dad wanted everything for us, but stretching a paycheck with a big family is not easy. He was always fair with us all, though."

The sergeant was determined to be a combat controller. It took three years of applying to finally get into the program.

"I'm just training to do a job," Frew said. "It's not a normal job -- it is a life-changing situation. It will put you through the worst times with the best rewards."

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