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Operation Air Force educates academy cadets

Master Sgt. Larry Shenold, Combat Readiness School, far right and 2nd Lt. Ashley Hardwick, 31st Combat Communications Squadron, introduce Air Force Academy cadets to the M-16 rifle during an Operation Air Force visit to Tinker. The program is meant to expose cadets to different facets of the service before they graduate.  (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Master Sgt. Larry Shenold, Combat Readiness School, far right and 2nd Lt. Ashley Hardwick, 31st Combat Communications Squadron, introduce Air Force Academy cadets to the M-16 rifle during an Operation Air Force visit to Tinker. The program is meant to expose cadets to different facets of the service before they graduate. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- It was an image out of Hollywood. All eyes in the room were on the gunman silhouetted in the open doorway. The muzzle of his rifle panned the room while the strains of the "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" played in the background.

"Speed, force and violence are the key," the gunman said. "It's not for the timid or the weak at heart."

The music continued playing. That is, until Master Sgt. Larry Shenold put down the rifle and answered his cell phone.

It was a brief moment of levity in a day of learning about how the 3rd Combat Communications Group ready themselves for deployment and potential combat under the experienced eye of Sergeant Shenold, head of Tinker's Combat Readiness School.

Eight Air Force Academy cadets last week joined the 3rd Herd and Sergeant Shenold as part of a three-week visit to Tinker. During "Operation Air Force," each summer academy cadets are given the chance to visit Air Force facilities worldwide to see and experience the many facets of Air Force life.

"The idea is to give them awareness of the rest of the Air Force," said Lt. Col. Alan Berry, deputy commander of the 3rd CCG. "We've been around for 52 years, but people still don't know what we do."

"Tinker's done a great job in showing us all they have to offer," said Cadet Devon Ford. "It gives you the opportunity to learn the different career fields."

During their stay, the cadets flew on board KC-135 aerial tankers, visited the 72nd Security Force Squadron's K-9 unit and learned how to load pallets of equipment and supplies for loading onto aircraft. For most, it was a glimpse of daily Air Force work.

"It's good to see what the real Air Force is like," said Cadet Michael Allen.

"It's very interesting," agreed Cadet Mathew Markling.

Although most of these and other academy cadets request flight training on their career field "dream sheet" during their junior year at the academy, not all will make the cut. Second Lt. John Kostelnik of the 31st Combat Communications Squadron reminded cadets that they might find themselves in places other than the cockpit during their Air Force career.

Combat communications units often deploy to Forward Operating Bases and remote locations to assist with communications between aircraft and other military units. Lieutenant Kostelnik, an ROTC graduate, found himself deployed to Iraq within a year of his commissioning.

"This could be you in a couple of years," Lieutenant Kostelnik told the cadets while showing them the setup of a six-man Deployed Initial Communications Element unit. "You could be boots on the ground."

Because of the risk of ground combat, Airmen are required to complete Combat Readiness School before deployment. Modeled on Army training, the school teaches Airmen unschooled in close combat how to stay alive in a hostile environment.

"Tricks of the trade," Sergeant Shenold told the cadets. "Those little tricks of the trade will save your lives, save your people's lives."

Sergeant Shenold put the cadets through their paces, recapping and expanding on weapons handling that most of the cadets only experienced during basic training. And then he had them shoot at one another. With blanks, of course.

"The object is to keep cool in the face of pressure," Sergeant Shenold said during one firing exercise. "The faster you can reload, that's money in the bank. That's insurance that you're going to survive that fight."

But Sergeant Shenold gave the cadets more than advice on how to be cool in combat.

"You're going to have to deal with a lot of stuff, especially if you're a leader," he added. "You've got to be morally and mentally prepared."

And that's not Hollywood.