By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

At the base barber shop there was a Senior Airman sitting in the chair next to me. He was talking about marrying a woman who had no background with the military and the Airman was planning to get out of the Air Force. The female barbers where jokingly getting on the Airman about his future wife, and her needing to learn the military family way of life. They decided she just needed to take the plunge and become a good military spouse.

Then the airman surprised me when he stated that the real reason he wanted out of the Air Force was he did not want to go back to Iraq and convoy duty. He had been pulled from his regular job in the Air Force and sent to Iraq to perform an infantry job. So what, you might say. When you are in the military, you do whatever you are told to do.

This is true, but you need to be trained to be a trained combat foot soldier and there are few people in the Air Force who possess those infantry skills. Even the Air Force Security Forces "cops" are not full time infantry. They get extensive infantry training on entering the Air Force, but then they go to their first base and perform "cops" duties. Infantry skills are perishable. If you are an infantryman in the Army or Marines then that is what you train to do as a regular daily job.

We are however, not talking just about Air Force "cops" performing Army tasks. My big Air Force is taking administration folks, civil engineers, maintenance personal, cooks, truck drivers, and the troops who pass out towels at the base gym, putting an M-16 rifle in their hand and sending them off to be infantry.

Yes, there have been some short, crash courses developed to provide infantry combat skills to the unsuspecting Airmen. The Air Force sent me to Army Infantry School at Ft Benning, Georgia. I spent five and a half months learning how to be a soldier. Then I went to Korea and right back to "cop" work. They day I left Ft. Benning I started loosing some of my war-fighting skills because soldiering was not my regular job in the Air Force.

This new mission of putting Airmen into traditional Army combat jobs is called the "in-lieu-of" program. In-lieu-of the fact that the Army and Marines do not have enough people to perform all the required tasks in Iraq, the Department of Defense (DOD) is using Airmen and Navy sailors in infantry roles. They are taking sailors off of ships whose job it is to run an engine room and making them "soldiers-for-the-month."

The Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, was at Balad Air Base, Iraq recently where concerned deployed Airmen asked him about the "in-lieu-of" program.

Secretary Wynne stated "we are not going to fill the Army with in-lieu-of taskings."

The only problem with that statement is that there are over 5000 Airmen deployed in an "in-lieu-of" assignment currently, and the number is growing. The Airmen who are deployed "in-lieu-of" also get to look forward to being away from home two to four months longer than the rest of the Airmen who deploy to perform their regular Air Force jobs.

I do not want to appear cynical, but if the Army starts to run low of helicopter pilots are we going to send Air Force aircrew members to man the Army Blackhawks "in-lieu-of"? Or are we going to be told that our Air Force pilots don't possess the needed Army skills to take over a sister-services combat operation. In the words of the old disco song "Whose Zooming Who?"

This is not a complaint about the Gulf War and it is not a complaint about the Army. The DOD needs to build more Army and Marine Corps infantry divisions. Give those two branches the manpower, equipment and money to meet the ground combat needs of this war, and any future conflict. In 1943 at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia (in North Africa) the US Army suffered what amounted to a slaughter of its troops. The major reasons for the loss in that battle were poor training, untested leadership, and inferior equipment. We do not need to watch on cable news the massacre of an entire convoy of Airmen, whose bodies are being mutilated by Arab women using their knives like they did at Kasserine Pass. Deploy the correct troops for the needed mission.

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Copyright 2007, 2013 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.