Special Opportunity: Cadets make
inroads for AFROTC in Special Ops © Oct. 30, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich cadets carry one of their own during a competition at the Air Force facility at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

photo courtesy of Maj. Jeff CooperCadet Ian Kemp leads a team of fellow Norwich students in a wounded buddy carry, with Justin Hazlett in the stretcher. Clockwise from Kemp are cadets Alex Baird, Alex Morris, Gilbert Summers and Travis Dyke. The group is competing in a “Monster Mash” race with airmen in Special Ops training programs.

Six cadets in the Air Force Reserve Officer’s Training Program [AFROTC] have helped change the way the service will recruit candidates for its Special Operations component.

The students—who attend Norwich University, the country’s oldest private military college and the birthplace of ROTC—were the first AFROTC cadets to participate in a three-week special tactics orientation course held by the Air Force Special Operations Command at its headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The course, which began in 2007, was varied and rigorous. Ian Kemp, a Class of 2010 communication major from Queens, N.Y., called it an “eye-opening” experience.

“I have a greater appreciation for what they go through to maintain mission readiness,” said Kemp. “You can’t slack off. Every day you’re not training, somebody else is [training].”

“They’re a pretty unique breed of individual within the Air Force.”

~ Maj. Jeff Cooper,
on Special Operations officers

In three weeks at Hurlburt Field, cadets participated in extensive physical training, learned about combat medicine [including giving IVs to other students], and received briefings on topics such as irregular warfare, the training of foreign nationals and the proper use of an inflatable Zodiac boat. Cadets were also allowed to observe training for a variety of operational environments such as high-altitude, low-open [HALO] parachute jumps, static line jumps and amphibious operations.

It was an orientation previously available only to cadets from the Air Force Academy.

“The Air Force does a great job of hiring pilots, but I noticed we haven’t been doing that good a job in getting qualified and interested people into the special tactics officer and combat rescue officer career fields,” said Maj. Jeff Cooper, a Norwich AFROTC instructor. “They’re a pretty unique breed of individual within the Air Force.”

Special Operations forces, of which special tactics and combat rescue officers are just two jobs, conduct missions ranging from precision application of firepower to infiltration, ex-filtration, aviation, rescue, resupply and refueling of operational elements.

Cooper, a combat rescue officer and helicopter pilot with more than 20 years of Army and Air Force experience, said it is not unusual for someone to serve in the Air Force for decades and not be aware the service even had a Special Operations component. This lack of “cultural immersion” means a potentially rich resource of candidates—2,000 officers commissioned annually through AFROTC—is not being tapped.

Cooper felt establishing a connection between AFROTC cadets and Special Operations could also help re-energize the program at Norwich. He started “kicking around the bushes,” looking for opportunities to get cadets practical training and give them a real appreciation for the career opportunities in Special Operations. When he learned about the orientation program, he inquired if there was room for AFROTC cadets from Norwich. Six slots were made available.

“I guess I was in the right place at the right time with the right questions for the right people,” said Cooper.

Kemp still plans on going to flight school after he is commissioned, but what he experienced at Hurlburt Field caused him to lose “a little sleep” over his career choice.

“Anything can happen, but right now I’m still focused on being a pilot,” he said.

For Justin Hazlett, ’11, three weeks at Hurlburt reinforced that Special Operations is the right career choice for him. A physics major from Levant, Maine., Hazlett is very happy his Norwich experience included the orientation, and that he is better prepared mentally for the rigors of training. He will have to apply for Special Operations training, which takes 18 months or more.

“I definitely have a more full understanding of the high professional standards and physical demands required for Special Operations,” said Hazlett.

Both said the most difficult aspect of their experience was coping with the summer heat and humidity on the Florida panhandle.

“I definitely looked forward to any of the water training ... so we could get a break from the heat,” said Kemp.

Cadets also participated in a meeting between members of the Special Operations and AFROTC commands about the program. Both sides agreed that they each could do a better job of promoting the career opportunities within Air Force Special Operations, said Cooper.

“The experiences of the Norwich cadets are the foundation that meeting was built upon,” he said.

Lt. Col. Brett Nelson, Air Force commander for the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron and a 1989 Norwich graduate, said the pilot program’s success means more AFROTC cadets are likely to have the opportunity to attend in the future.

“The Norwich students who come through here have had their eyes opened to who we are and what we do—both in relation to Special Operations and in relation to the larger Air Force and joint operations pictures,” said Nelson. “This benefits the Air Force because it increases awareness of all the opportunities that are out there to do different things in the Air Force.”