AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq (Nov. 19, 2008) --
The sun hung blindingly high in the afternoon sky as Capt. James R. “Roller Boy” Berard poured over terrain maps stretched out on the hood of a humvee.
His voice remained calm and collected despite the frenzy of chatter exploding from the radio handset pressed tightly against his head. Like an actor reciting his lines, he methodically relayed grid coordinates and target locations to aircraft soaring above.
Berard’s role as a forward air controller was a complete role reversal for him as he guided ordnance drops during the Tactical Air Control Party training exercise Nov. 11-14, outside Al Asad Air Base, Iraq.
An F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet pilot by trade, Berard is currently serving as an assistant air officer with Regimental Combat Team 1 in Ramadi, Iraq.
A TACP shoot is a combined-arms training exercise designed to refresh forward air controllers on the ground and pilots in the sky on the tactics and skills necessary to successfully engage targets from the aircraft to the ground.
Berard, usually piloting a jet, deployed to Al Asad Air Base with Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron-121 as an F/A-18 fighter pilot in Feb. 2007 and logged roughly 400 combat flight hours during his tour.
He explained how his unique understanding of the pilot’s perspective played a crucial role as a FAC during the training exercise.
“Our job as forward air controllers is to relay all the information and coordinate with the pilots on where they need to safely and effectively drop their ordnance,” said Berard, 29, from Morgantown, WV. “That includes everything from target location, location of friendlies, how we want them to attack and the timeframe in which to attack. Having been in (the pilot’s) position before, I know exactly what they’re looking for.”
The FACs used equipment ranging from basic compasses and binoculars to high-tech guided laser target designators to acquire the necessary information.
Berard and four other FACs coordinated attacks with U.S. Marine Corps Huey and Cobra helicopters and F/A-18 fighter jets, as well as U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets on destroyed armor hulks as close as 1,500 meters from their position.
While the F/A-18’s and helicopters unleashed a hailstorm of rockets and machinegun fire, the F-16s delivered precision drops with two 1,000-pound bombs that rattled the earth on impact.
Two 81mm mortar sections and an artillery scout supported the FACs, firing mortars to simulate suppressing the enemy and marking targets with smoke.
Cpl. Jason D. Calo, an artillery/mortar scout observer attached to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, served as the primary liaison between the mortar teams and the FACs.
“This training is important because what you don’t use, you lose,” said Calo, 21, from Mancelona, Mich. “This evolution not only let me practice and hone my skills, but there’s nothing cooler than having a fighter jet fly over your shoulder and annihilate the enemy with a 1,000 pound bomb.”
Timing between the mortar sections and the FACs was essential, Berard said. Time needed to be exact and down to the very second.
“The mortar rounds were flying as high as 11,000 feet and we had aircraft flying between 10-12,000 feet,” Berard explained. “As FACs, we need to know exactly where everything is at all times. If I call for a (mortar round) at 5 minutes past because there’s an aircraft coming in at 5 minutes and 30 seconds, you can see why the mortarman’s watch can’t be even a few seconds off.”
Pilots usually spend the first two to four years of their careers flying before they are required to fill a b-billet. A b-billet, or secondary job, typically requires the pilot to step out of the cockpit.
While Berard said he misses flying, he’s glad for the opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with the ground side of the Marine Corps.
“A big part of what I took from my last deployment is remembering the guys on the ground,” he said. “Everything I did in a close air support role, all the flying and all the planning, was for the guy on the ground that gets on the radio so I could hook him up on a bad day.”