(Left to right) Staff Sgt. Christian Cuevas, Senior Airman Marlo Bolles, Master Sgt. Darrien Thornton, Tech. Sgt. Devontay Williams and Staff Sgt. Brandon Dendy serve as Phoenix Ravens with the 94th Airlift Wing at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. (Don Peek)
01/27/2017 – Twenty years ago, the Air Mobility Command commander, Gen. Walter Kross, instituted the creation of a specialized element of trained security forces members dedicated to providing close-in protection for strategic airlift assets and personnel. The unit was named the Phoenix Ravens, and today this special subset of security forces, which includes Air Force Reserve Citizen Airmen, continues to support AMC and Air Force Reserve Command airlift missions transiting into international hotspots around the globe.
The birth of this security element came in the aftermath of terrorist events around the world such as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that left 19 U.S. military members dead and nearly 500 coalition forces injured. Airmen serving in-country at the time were there in support of Operation Southern Watch, the coalition flying activity dedicated to enforcing a no- y zone in southern Iraq. The Khobar Towers bombing prompted military decision-makers to identify threat risks in areas where the U.S. presence was expanding without the protective ground support that it was accustomed to when operating out of secured locations.
Raven teams are usually small in number, consisting of two to five specially trained and equipped security forces personnel who deploy as aircrew members on special missions. The AMC Threat Working Group determines when Raven teams are required. Raven teams help detect, deter and counter threats to aircraft and personnel. In addition, they advise aircrews on force protection measures and specifics concerning the assessment of airfield conditions.
AFRC wing commanders may also direct Phoenix Raven teams to accompany home-station airlift missions to high- threat areas outside the continental United States.
Recently, an Air Force Reserve 94th Security Forces Squadron Raven team from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, was called upon to conduct an AMC special assigned airlift mission in support of Operation Resolute in the U.S. Central Command theater of operations. Master Sgt. Darrien Thornton led this three-person detail that also included Tech. Sgt. Devontay Williams and Staff Sgt. Christian Cuevas.
For this particular mission, the Raven team provided security support for members of the 437th Airlift Wing, an active-duty AMC unit at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, assisting them in the delivery of mission-essential command and control equipment. During this short-notice, six-day Raven mission, Thornton’s team provided ground security while Islamic State enemy forces were known to be operating in close proximity to the designated airfield. The mission covered more than 12,000 miles and was completed successfully without any security incidents.
The Phoenix Raven training course is conducted by the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. According to the center, the course is an intensive three-week, 12-hour-a-day experience that covers subjects involving cross-cultural awareness, legal considerations, embassy operations, airfield survey techniques, explosive ordnance awareness, aircraft searches and unarmed self-defense techniques. Students are exposed to more than 70 use-of-force scenarios where stress is simulated using role players.
Training includes instruction and realistic practical exercises in anti-terrorism/force protection, weapon system security, verbal judo, combative sessions, tactical baton employment and advanced rearms proficiency. Phoenix Raven candidates are also instructed on anti-hijacking duty in cooperation with the federal air marshal program.
Using the latest in proven technologies and methods from lessons-learned and from other agencies, the qualification course is constantly updated to provide the best training possible.
Phoenix Raven training is designed to provide security forces members with the skills required for their unique mission and builds on basic security forces skills. AFRC is allotted four course slots per class for a total of 16 seats a year. The course is physically and mentally strenuous with a class pass rate that fluctuates between 55 percent and 85 percent.
“Getting successfully through the course is not a cakewalk,” Thornton said. “When I initially volunteered to attend the training, I was of the mindset that the course wouldn’t be that tasking. I was convinced otherwise very quickly because of the level of physicality required of the students and the non-stop, around-the-clock conditioning drills.
“I’ve been a Raven since 2008, when I completed the course, but my graduation didn’t come easy. It took me three tries. In 2003, I suffered a broken thumb during a ‘hit man’ drill and was released from the course because of that injury. In 2004, I got my second chance to become a Raven, but, unfortunately, during a contact kicking drill with one of my classmates I fractured my left femur and spent five days in the hospital.
“I was thinking about giving up hope on trying to achieve that elusive Raven patch and number, but after some intense physical therapy, which led to my full recovery, I decided to give it another try. The third time was the charm, and in 2008, I successfully completed the course, a significant highlight in my Air Force career.”
AFRC has identified security forces members at specific locations who are Raven qualified. Upon graduation, Ravens are issued a lifetime numeric identifier and receive a special experience identifier as well.
To maintain Raven currency, security forces personnel have to complete annual refresher training and conduct two actual missions that are graded as “proficient” by a qualified team leader. Earning and maintaining Raven currency entitles Airmen to wear a round Phoenix Raven patch (worn on the right shoulder of a Raven’s green flight suit when in flying status) and a small tab identifier patch inscribed “Raven” (worn on the left shoulder of Airman battle uniforms).
Within AFRC there are no unit type codes for this specialty. Once a request is received at the command headquarters, usually the requirement is for a future flying mission within a 60-day period. Once advertised, AFRC Ravens can volunteer through the HQ AFRC Raven program manager for those positions and do so in strong numbers. There are times, however, when short-notice requirements necessitate immediate 72-hour fill actions.
According to Master Sgt. Rob Holland, HQ AFRC Raven program manager, those requests do happen frequently. However, if they result from missions originating at active-duty locations where AFRC has assigned Ravens, the command has a very good track record of filling those requests with volunteers.
Typically, Raven missions last from two to five days. Raven elements are spread across the CONUS at airlift locations featuring C-5 Galaxy, C-17 Globemaster III, and C-130 Hercules aircraft platforms.
“Participation in the program provides AFRC Ravens with the opportunity to experience a total force partnership concept with a direct linkage to Headquarters Air Force-level strategy on a world stage,” Holland said. “The AFRC Ravens take great pride in being a vital part of our nation’s defense, and I am proud to be supporting them in answering their call to duty.”
By Gene Van Deventer, Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command
Published January 27, 2017
(Van Deventer is a program analyst in the Directorate of Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection’s Installation Support Branch at Headquarters AFRC, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.)