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KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — The reminders are constant. They're painted on the walls of the exclusive gym, screamed by instructors during intense physical training. Never quit.
To exit the combat controller training building here, trainees must tap a sign with that message. Massive letters inscribed on the walls inside the building — NFQ — represent the "no quitters" mantra, with an expletive added for emphasis.
Still, about 60 percent of the airmen who come to the Combat Control Operator Course will quit, putting additional pressure on a specialty known for its difficulty in recruiting and retaining airmen.
To announce to their classmates that they are finished, trainees must ring a silver bell in the gym. The message: They can't handle the training. This isn't for them.
When they walk out for the last time, they don't tap the writing above the door.
"You can only quit once," said Master Sgt. Brad Reilly, the noncommissioned officer in charge of combat controller training at Keesler.
The four-month stay at Keesler is one step in a long journey to becoming an Air Force combat controller. Controllers are attached to the military's elite special operations groups, such as Army Special Forces or Navy SEALs, and are trained to direct aircraft and set up operating airfields.
But as cool as the job might sound, it requires special skills that are hard to find — and even harder to retain. Combat control is one of the Air Force's most critically understrength career fields, with a retention rate of about 13 percent in 2011.
But there are incentives: Airmen in these jobs who have 17 months to 14 years of service are eligible for the top re-enlistment bonuses — up to $90,000 this year. And they typically have higher promotion rates than other specialties.
The Air Force's approximately 500 combat controllers also are considered to be in a stressed career field because of their high deployment rates and operational tempo, and there's no sign of that easing up.
"We still and always will remain an undermanned career field," Reilly said. "We've just got to find the raw material first ... find somebody who wants to do this. Not many guys in the Air Force want to do this."
To help identify airmen with the desire and ability to withstand the intense training, a Rand study commissioned by the Air Force to help improve retention among nine critical skills recommended using the emotional-quotient inventory, or EQ-i test, as part of the screening. The service is working on incorporating the test, according to the study.
Selection for combat controllers begins with a 10-day course after basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
"It's a kick in the balls," Reilly said, meant to weed out those who aren't ready. This phase has a 35 percent to 50 percent attrition rate.
The instructors at Keesler get their chance with the trainees next for about four months of intense physical training and classroom work. From there, they move to training back at Lackland and on to bases such as Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.; Hurlburt Field, Fla.; and Pope Field, N.C., for courses that include survival, evasion, resistance and escape training; jump training — including high-altitude, low-opening —and combat dive training.
The trainees work for 35 weeks before they earn the scarlet beret that comes with being a combat controller. Then they move on for more advanced training.
Training days at Keesler are long, and start hard. Combat trainees are up before 5 a.m. every day for their gym and beach workouts.
On a morning in late June, a group of 11 trainees met in the combat-exclusive gym on base to prepare for a grueling two hours on the sandy beaches of Biloxi, Miss.
At 6 a.m., the Blue Bird bus pulled up to Highway 90, a stretch of beach on the coast situated between two massive luxury hotels. Two by two, the 11 ran to the beach, with Lt. Christopher Walsh in front. On his right shoulder he carried a painted rock, about the size of a basketball, with the names of fallen combat controllers. Each training group gets one, and they hold onto it and take care of it during their time at Keesler.
Over the next two hours, they were pushed to their limit, with multiple 600-meter sprints, and then even more sprinting intervals. With barely a rest, they moved to soft sand for more sprints, firemen's carries, buddy drags and burpees — a combination pushup and jumping jack done countless times throughout the day. Two trainees who had fallen behind the others were even ordered to do them in the ocean.
For about half of the exercises, the trainees competed with one another. For the other half, they worked together and carried each other to make it through.
"They run together; it's good that they push each other," Reilly said.
When they finished, they cleaned the gym until it was pristine.
From there, they began a full day of air traffic control classes, alongside other airmen training to be air traffic controllers.
The five-phase class work at Keesler uses massive, expensive radar and tower simulators to familiarize the airmen with tower operations. They direct simulated airframes, replicating the situations Air Force combat controllers face in the towers, and skills they will need during operations in the field.
Class work goes into the night, and trainees sleep barely six hours before getting up and doing it again.
By the end of the four months at Keesler, they are all Federal Aviation Administration-certified air traffic controllers. But for the combat trainees, this is just the beginning.
Reilly is there to push everyone through the training and weed out those who can't cut it. After serving as a Marine for 12 years in maintenance, Reilly said he wanted to try something new and went for combat control.
The Marine job "just wasn't enough to satisfy me," he said while watching the trainees do sprints. "I wanted a real mission change."
If he knew how hard the training would be, he said, he might not have done it. But now — after six deployments, earning the Silver Star in Afghanistan — he doesn't want to do anything else. He became the NCO in charge of the training in November.
Most trainees arrive straight out of basic training, young and determined to make the cut.
One is Philadelphia-native Airman 1st Class Dan Dalton. During the morning beach PT, he was up front, leading the group through burpees on the sand and setting the pace in several runs.
Going into training, he had an idea of what he was getting into. But when it gets tough, the guys around him are there to help push through, he said.
"I know I want to do the job," he said. "I know it's going to be hard. But, it's doable. People who came before me succeeded. When there's rough times, you just look to the guy next to you and know that he's still going, so I'm still going to go."
Others have taken different paths to becoming a combat controller, or for officers, becoming a special tactics officer.
First Lt. Christopher Walsh was a KC-135 maintenance officer at RAF Mildhenall, England, for 2½ years when he decided to earn the right to wear a scarlet beret. The idea of special operations appealed to him, and he is now helping lead the group through training as the only officer in his training group.
"It's just the end result, knowing that one day you are going to be around heroes ... guys downrange doing amazing things," he said. "You get to work with those individuals. I think that is the most rewarding thing, especially from a leadership perspective."