YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — From a bridge-building exercise on the Han River to flight training over central South Korea, cadets from U.S. military academies have descended on units overseas to get practical field experience.
In an annual tradition of joining up with active-duty units, dozens training to be Army and Air Force officers are being integrated into various specialties, putting to work things they’ve previously done only in the classroom.
At Osan Air Base, officials have dubbed the summer program "Operation Air Force." Over three sessions, 12 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets between their junior and senior years will get hands-on experience at the air base, officials said.
Cadets can request specific bases, but most are assigned randomly, officials said.
The program’s goal is to show units performing their real-world missions and acclimate the cadets to everyday tasks, activities and perceptions of active-duty servicemembers, said Capt. Spencer Prou, chief of targets intelligence at Osan and himself once an OAF program participant.
Prou also is president of the Osan Company Grade Officer Council, which heads this year’s summer cadet corps.
"They have the unique opportunity to experience aspects of the Air Force they would not typically be able to through the Academy or ROTC," said Prou, according to an Air Force news release.
The Army in South Korea offers a similar program. West Point cadets join up with units in the field, getting a taste of operations.
Last week, Cadet Dan Lao got his first exposure to life in an air defense artillery unit. Attached to Battery D, 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Lao worked with gear such as anti-aircraft missiles.
"It is amazing technology. This is my first time being hands-on with the unit," he said.
Like some cadets, Lao ended up with a unit outside the military job he wants to pursue. Though he’d like to serve as an engineer, he said, working with air defense artillery was worthwhile because those units often are attached to infantry protecting engineers in the field.
Katie Fidler, another West Point cadet, was attached to the 50th Engineer Company, where she took part in a massive exercise to build a float bridge across the Han River near Seoul.
"I have never seen any of this equipment at West Point," she said. "There are only four bridge companies in the Army," so it was a unique opportunity.
And because the units in South Korea are so intensely focused on a real-world mission, program sponsors say, the field experience for the cadets is better than most.
"It is a great chance" to see a truly operation-focused base "as opposed to a strictly training-focused USAFA," said Cadet 2nd Class Taylor Gifford, using the acronym for the Air Force Academy.
"Although our bases were randomly assigned, we heard good things from cadets who had previously been to Osan. Being out at Osan has given me a tangible example of why I go to the USAFA."
Being at Osan, a base focused on a possible real-world combat mission, will be of extra benefit to the cadets, Osan officials said.
"Because Osan is such a unique operational base, we tried to schedule the cadets’ time to see as wide a variety of operations as possible," Captain Prou said in the Air Force news release. The cadets are assigned to shadow senior noncommissioned officers and officers, "visiting the 51st Fighter Wing and doing everything from working on jets to flying in Vipers."
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