24 hours for the fallen

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer
  • 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
They are our quiet professionals who are surgical with their skill sets and unrelenting in their delivery. Their "Death on Call" motto is not spoken lightly from their mouths and the gravity of their mission outweighs the recognition and respect they will never ask for, but unequivocally deserve. The U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) specialists orchestrate asymmetrical warfare in skies from the ground. They are the ones ensuring terminal fire rains down on the enemy, all while living and fighting with their Army counterparts deep in the anonymous sands of the Middle East and beyond. Their mission is to advise, assist, and control, and they are elite. The worldwide TACP community is small and close-knit, and thus organizations such as the TACP Association exist in order to support these battlefield airmen and their families in their extraordinary calling. The 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria, Ill., houses the 169th Air Support Operations Squadron (ASOS) TACPs as a mission-separated unit who puts boots on the ground in the purest sense of the term. On March 28 and 29, 2013, the 169th ASOS hosted a team for the second annual TACP Association 24 Hour Run Challenge to raise money for the sustainment of TACP families and to remember those who have perished in combat. The date of March 29 also holds a decade-old painful place in heart of the 182nd. On that day in 2003, Staff Sgt. Jacob Frazier of the 169th ASOS died in combat in Afghanistan and became the wing's first combat-related death.

Ten years ago Maj. Scott Grotbo and Capt. Daniel Curtin were both enlisted TACPs who deployed with Frazier from Peoria to Afghanistan in Jan. of 2003, though the assignment led them to working out of different fire bases. Almost four months into the deployment, a harsh fear of the mission became realized. On March 27, Maj. Grotbo and Capt. Curtin set out on a multi-day mission north of Kandahar with their twelve-man Army Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA). Their orders were to find Taliban insurgents who had recently killed members of the Red Cross and who were actively recruiting around the surrounding area. Ten years later, Maj. Grotbo recalled the week vividly. "We'd been tracking them for a couple days and on the 29th we just left a village where they basically dimed them out and said 'Hey, the guys you're looking for just headed up into that mountain range.' And so as soon as we approached the base of the mountain range we started getting mortars and (rocket-propelled grenade) RPG fire," he said...

March 28, 2013, 2:59pm: One could not have asked for a more beautiful day to be a part of a twenty-four hour run. The sun is shining at the 182nd Airlift Wing as bright as the enthusiasm building at the starting line. Several runners, TACPs, and family members have showed up to lend their support and kick off the event. A table sits near the starting point, holding the official synchronized time clock, energy snacks, and photos of Jake Frazier and other TACPs doing what they do best. A countdown is started to 3pm and Lt. Col. William Wheeler, commander of the 168th ASOS and the first runner of the day, prepares to run the one and a quarter mile loop around the base. In his hand he carries the sacred token of the run challenge: a coin made in Afghanistan embedded with the TACP symbol and a homage to Staff Sgt. Frazier. The other runners give Lt. Col. Wheeler some space and then begin to follow the leader as they begin the first minutes of the next twenty-four hours.

...As Maj. Grotbo and Capt. Curtin fought back against the Taliban rebels in the Afghani Gar mountain range in 2003, Jake Frazier's team was in Sangin about two and a half hours west doing a meet-and-greet with the local populace. "...At that same time all other ODAs that were in the area - one of them being Jake's team - were notified 'Hey, this ODA has received contact at this location. Be advised,' because at the time we didn't know what we were up against, so we didn't know if we needed to pull reinforcements from Jake's team or anybody else that was in the area," Maj. Grotbo said. "They (Frazier's team) finally said 'We gotta get out of here, there's another team in trouble,' so it was at that time that they were heading south out of the town that they were ambushed..."

March 28, 2013, 7:18pm: The sun is beginning to set over Peoria, Ill., but the run challenge has been going strong for over four hours. Several different teams of runners have passed through, and all have kept Jake Frazier's coin continuously moving lap after lap around the perimeter of the military installation. The temperature has dropped few degrees and a gentle breeze has picked up, but it does not slow the runners making their way around the boundary of the 182nd. The vibrant sun blankets the installation with a peaceful glow, and it sets a quiet mood to give remembrance to Frazier and all the other fallen TACPs.

...After hearing the radio transmissions from Kandahar, Frazier and his five vehicle convoy were on their way back to Fire Base Geresk to receive orders to back up the Gecko team. "And on the way back they ran into a complex ambush...It was definitely a pre-set ambush; they were waiting for them," Capt. Curtin said. An unknown number of insurgents used aiming sticks in the ground to effectively fire their weapons at the convoy from more than a football field away before fleeing on motorcycles. Frazier's vehicle was the last in the convoy and sustained heavy damage. During the ambush, Jake Frazier and Army Sgt. Orlando Morales were killed by the barrage of gunfire, and a third occupant, Army Sgt. 1st Class Tom Douglas, was severely wounded. For the first time, the 182nd had lost a member in battle. "I think about him every single day," Capt. Curtin said. His voice never wavered, but the slight red gleam in his eyes spoke volumes. "So I can tell you since he passed away there hasn't been a day where I haven't thought about him...For all of us that were out in the field going through our first deployment, it started to become real at that point...very real." The last time that Maj. Grotbo saw Frazier was a week or two before when Frazier was passing through Fire Base Gecko. "We were just joking around about all kinds of stuff and just making light of the whole situation that we were in, having to deal with the Afghanis, anything like that," he said. "Normal busting each other's chops and everything, and then he takes off and it's just 'Hey, be safe,' so...You could tell he had an ear to ear grin; he loved what he was doing, that's for sure...He was having the time of his life as far as getting your cake and eating it too..."

March 28, 2013, 9:11pm: The waning gibbous moon is almost at full brightness, but gentle clouds mask its arrival over the skies of the 182nd Airlift Wing. Instead, the stadium spotlights lighting the 182nd's mass aircraft parking area illuminate the wing's C-130H aircraft resting stoically after another duty day. Another set of supporters have been running for some time now. The temperature has dropped to a brisk 41 degrees, but the runners combat the cold and the time of day with smiles, laughs, and antics. Over six hours into the run, and the Peoria team is still going strong.

...Before Capt. Curtin and Jake Frazier were brothers-in-arms, they were best friends. They first met as college roommates at Lincoln College in Normal, Ill., in 1997. "Jake was a salesman, is what he was. He was very charismatic...He had a bunch of hair-brained ideas, it was always 'the next idea'," he recalled with a chuckle. The two young men were enjoying their college years without too much thought or direction to the future when one night Frazier planted the idea of the Air National Guard in their minds. "When we sat down with (recruiter) Sgt. Benders, he had told us 'Well, how about this TACP thing?' and right off the bat, Jake was like 'I'm in'...He spent the next week trying to convince me to do it. I'll never forget the night, but we were at Lincoln...he really went into the sales pitch, and told me he wasn't going to do it unless I did it, and all this other crap. So I bit, and the rest is history," he said. Capt. Curtin now serves as the Operations Officer in Charge at the 169th ASOS. In June of 1998 the duo left for basic military training, and then endured the intense technical training and survival schools together, graduating from class Hawk-46 in Dec. 1998. "His passion once he got into this career field was to do the SOF (special operations forces) thing. That's what he really, really wanted to do," Capt. Curtin said. Memories kept alive at the 169th will always affirm that Frazier was a true battlefield airman, and he kept his enthusiasm for the job from the very beginning to the very end.

At the entrance to the ASOS at the 182nd Airlift Wing is a plaque embedded into the doorway that is a persistent reminder of Frazier's sacrifice. "Ten years later, it's just maybe a handful of us - especially in this building - that were part of that original deployment," Maj. Grotbo, who now serves as the 182nd Air Support Operations Group Assistant Director of Operations, said. "Everybody that comes through this building now, they see his plaque on the front, they see the stuff in the cases out front, and they know how serious this mission is," he said. That solemn authenticity is what binds the TACPs together in camaraderie, and is why the TACP Association exists to be there when times are dire. "My life revolves around the brothers...I've got five very close friends, and all of them are because of the military...I have very, very good friends, and they all came right out of the TACP community," Capt. Curtin said.

March 29, 2013, 3:00pm: For the last lap of the 24 Hour Run Challenge, a group of six TACPs decide to throw a five and a half foot tall tractor tire weighing 230 pounds around the last lap, each one taking turns flipping that massive piece of rubber across the mile and a quarter path. This feat is a testimony to the mindset of the TACP: What one person may consider unfathomable, they consider a feasible challenge. With only eight seconds to spare, the group makes it across the finish line and the 24 Hour Run Challenge is officially finished all across the world. At Peoria's finish line are spouses, loved ones, old comrades, and new. Present to cheer on the group from out of town are Tech. Sgt. A. and former Tech. Sgt. Jeb Corley, both TACPs who were in Afghanistan with Jake Frazier in 2003. At the run challenge's finale on the tenth anniversary of Jake Frazier's death, the Peoria team made of up 62 runners has traveled just shy of 162 miles with Frazier's coin in hand. There is applause and embraces. Through the run challenge with an original goal of $3,000, the Peoria team has raised over $8,190, or 18% of the $44,622 worldwide total, in support of TACPs and their families and to honor Staff Sgt. Frazier. Senior Airman Cody Canfield, who played a pivotal role in orchestrating Peoria's part in the event, was very pleased with the outcome. "I'm really happy with it with the short amount of time we had to let people know. We had a really good turnout. We filled every time block and we had a lot of runners out here, even from outside the military, so I was happy the word got out and everyone showed up," he says.

As familiar faces begin to go their separate ways after the run has finished, one can imagine how the 169th ASOS family in Peoria has changed in the last ten years since Jake Frazier died. Members have come and gone. The unit has moved from an Army National Guard base to a brand new building built just for it at the 182nd Airlift Wing. Though a decade has passed, one thing abundantly evident is that the family is still close and strong, and that though Staff Sgt. Jacob Frazier has departed, his memory will most certainly always be kept alive at the 182nd.