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Kit Up! Veteran's Day Salute: Early USAF Defenders

I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about some Air Force history this Veteran’s Day, but contrary to standard SOP I’m not going to tell the story of any pilots. Nothing against the zipper suited sun gods, mind you, but they do tend to get the majority of the press (and fair enough). I'm going to talk about some old school Security Policemen though, specifically one of the men behind the earliest incarnation of the EST (Emergency Service Team) concept.

Kirtland AFB EST rehearsal for fast rope SAR insertion on Buff crash near Monument Valley.

The EST program began back in the 70s as TNT, or Tactical Neutralization Team, until what was then called (and would still be defined as) a back office weenie decided TNT was too aggressive a name. The gentler, more innocuous EST was chosen instead. In those days the Security Police EST (in simplest terms, the Air Force version of SWAT) School provided the training for a number of agencies and other services, including the Army’s SRT and the Navy’s Master at Arms personnel. Once they taught an initial cadre of Co. B, Texas Rangers at Camp Bullis. This has unfortunately now reversed itself, and on those rare occasions AFSF personnel are sent to formal EST training, it’s to the Army Military Police School’s SRT course at Camp Leonard Wood (or more often SWAT courses conducted by local LE agencies). Note that this isn’t a criticism of USAMPS (I've attended some of their courses and they were outstanding, with excellent training facilities), but it is a reflection of one area in which the entire career field has sadly declined (whether through lack of funding, lack of interest or a lack of understanding at senior levels).

The original EST concept, as established by men such as CCM Chalma Lee Sexton, JR (Ret), SMSgt Tom Herbert (Ret), MSgt “Gene” Hoard (called the Godfather of EST), Frank Joyce, Robert Menger and others, was on the cutting edge of tactical doctrine for its time. Remember, this was just a few years after the initial ‘Station Defense Teams’ in LA had been renamed SWAT. The fight with the Symbionese Liberation Army was fresh in everyone’s minds, and there’d just been assassination attempts on President Reagan and the Pope. SPs (and Security Police command staffs) today may find it hard to credit, but instructors at the original schoolhouse trained all over—and by all over I mean with contemporary LAPD SWAT, the Secret Service, SEALs, the British SAS and others, initially paid for out of Gen. Sadler’s slush fun (Gen. Sadler was the “Top Cop” at the time; he'd seen NYPD's ESU work and readily saw the value of an organic AF tactical/CT program). From the outset they were a part of an FBI program called TRAMS (Terrorist Research Management System) which opened some doors for them, despite pushback at MAJCOM level. They brought what they learned back to establish the first curriculum of what became the EST manual and ESBI D-11.

Teams from many bases were deployed on several operations that have been largely forgotten. From missions in the jungles of Panama to instructor cadres deploying to South America to classified missions in Europe and Southwest Asia, some of what they did sounds utterly improbable (and for a number of reasons actually would be, by the constraints under which the career field operates).

One of the early pioneers of the EST concept was SMSgt (Ret) Tom Herbert, who was involved in an interesting mission in Arizona, in 1984 (he was one of the SPs who went to LA, Hereford and Coronado). He was kind enough to share some details and some photographs with me.

The team was out of Kirtland AFB’s Security Police Group. A ‘Buff’ (B-52) with a full crew plus one went down in the mountains adjoining Monument Valley, near Kayenta, AZ. The ground surveillance terrain radar malfunctioned on a night mission and as they were pulling up the aircraft scraped its tail and knocked out its stabilizers. The crew ejected, though the additional Colonel riding aboard was in a jump seat and was unable to do so.

“They didn’t know where they were or the attitude of the aircraft,” recalls SMSgt Herbert. “Half the crew punched out straight into a canyon wall. Ejecting didn’t kill them all, but what was left of them wasn’t pretty.”

The aircraft was transporting some very sensitive materials and an immediate recovery mission (and ESAR mission) was vital. A PJ team was deployed to the crash site, which was adjacent to a plateau an a sandstone chimney. Due to high winds, the size of the Jolly Green and other factors, the PJ team was unable to winch in and ultimately were not able to get to the crash site. The EST Field Supervisor (SMSgt Herbert) was recalled to the installation CP at the suggestion of the FBI and others involved due to their previous joint training efforts.

Kirtland’s EST had trained with an Army helo unit before and were dispatched to the downed Buff on UH-1Ds to secure the aircraft’s contents, any surviving crew members and remains. “We were given a blank check of air assets and vehicles,” SMSgt Herbert recalls, “and given 12 hours to get to the crash site. We got there in 6 in Hueys out of Santa Fe, fast-roped in and made the recovery, though we couldn’t find the Colonel’s remains at first. We eventually located him about halfway down a 2,500’ rock chimney. Though we were proving our worth before that mission, it was the first time big AF and AFOSP were forced to admit the EST as a concept had value.”

 

Kirtland AFB EST completing rehearsal runs for SAR mission in high winds near Monument Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patrick AFB EST circa 1979

These Security Policeman, some of whom had combat experience with CSP units in Vietnam, or Operation Safeside, were involved in many subsequent Cold War missions. The majority remain unremembered and aren’t even mentioned in the SP/SF Museum at Lackland AFB though a recent “TNT/EST” chapter of the AFSFA is working to correct that. Some were what would now be huge incidents in the press, like when Security Police from Lackland SAPD by bringing in an M706 and providing munitions and equipment during the Fiesta Sniper incident back in 1979. Other missions included security for the President of Brazil, who was under a death threat, security for a major player in the anti-communist movement in El Salvador, security details for the Shah of Iran and mobile training teams to train up national counter-terrorism units of allied countries. At one point a “world wide deployable” team was on immediate standby at Kelly AFB and were deployed to three different locations around the world in 9 months.

There are still a few ESTs out there (some of them very good), but the program is now, largely defunct. Parochial command elements in a service where individual bases are frequently run as an individual fiefdom vary widely in their approach to the idea, though organic tactical capability has largely been surrendered in favor of MOUs with local civilian LE agencies. That’s another story (and another soapbox) entirely. This story is about Tom Herbert and his peers. SMSgt Herbert’s story may not be as sexy as some, it's true. It’s not about a fighter jock thundering over some foreign country becoming a triple ace, or a PJ or Combat Controller doing any of the amazing and heroic things they routinely do, but it is a story that is represents the extraordinary if more mundane efforts of a generation of airmen…and it’s actually more dramatic by a longshot than the average SP (now Security Forces) who is rightfully called the ‘Stepchild of the Air Force’.  SMSgt Herbert, Chief Sexton and the others spent entire careers ensuring other airmen could sleep safe at night, that the aircraft and missiles vital to winning the Cold War were kept secure and ready to scramble or launch, and that grunts on the ground would actually have aircraft to call for CAS runs if they needed it.

To all of you veterans out there, thank you for your service, whether “sexy” or anonymous and ignominious, and thank you also to the families who remained behind when you deployed or who were left grieving when you didn’t come home.

For more on the new AF EST/TNT chapter, go to their YahooGroups page or find them on Facebook.

EST Team Leader Roberto "El Jefe" Bonefont Sr. reenlisting in Panama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author: David Reeder is a 20 year veteran of law enforcement and a AF Security Forces SNCO with with assignments in Training, S4, Mobility and Operations. He was an EST member, TL and CC and an instructor at the Bold Lighting Urban Warfare School. A former Evaluator/Controller for the National Homeland Security Training Center, for the last several years he's taught Combat Tracking to all four branches of service and a number of LE agencies. During his civilian law enforcement career he's worked patrol, training, drug task force, SWAT and PIO. He currently writes for Military.com's Kit Up!, Under the Radar, and Defense Tech and is a contributing editor for the BOLO Report.

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