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'Vipers' patrol desert to keep Airmen, aircraft safe

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Airman 1st Class Shannon Blackwell, front center, is part of the 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron's Viper Flight in Southwest Asia. Viper Flight comprises volunteers who go through an interview and on-the-job training to engage "outside-the-wire" threats to base defense.

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Airman 1st Class Shannon Blackwell, front center, is part of the 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron's Viper Flight in Southwest Asia. Volunteers comprise Viper Flight and go through an interview and on-the-job training to engage "outside-the-wire" threats to base defense. (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHWEST ASIA --

At the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, a select group of security forces members called Vipers aggressively patrol the area of desert surrounding the base day and night to protect it from intruders and ensure aircraft are able to take off and land safely.

The 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron Viper Flight consists of volunteers who are interviewed and chosen based on strict requirements.

"The volunteers must be mature and responsible since there is very little supervision out in the desert," said Master Sgt. Phillip Landreth, 386th ESFS Viper Flight NCO in charge. "We evaluate their personalities to assess how they will approach intruders and potential threats."

Once Airmen are selected and trained, they are expected to perform Viper duty for the duration of their deployment. Their mission is to detect and delay in the event of an attack, which gives the base time to generate a response force. Vipers are also responsible for the safety of incoming and outgoing aircraft.

"All security forces members attend combat skills training before they get here. Once selected, they receive on-the-job training needed to become a Viper," said Staff Sgt. Donald Jacobs, 386th ESFS Viper Flight chief. "We come up with drills and exercises to help the Airmen learn to respond to different situations that might come up during their duty day. We run the drills and then evaluate what went right and what could have been done better."

Despite the long, hot days in the desert, Airmen seem to enjoy being Vipers.

"This job keeps me busy, and when I go home at night, I feel like I've played an important part in keeping the mission going," said Airman 1st Class Shannon Blackwell, 386th ESFS Viper Flight, deployed from Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.

"The desert is very familiar to me because I come from a military family and when I was younger we lived in Saudi Arabia," Airman Blackwell added.

On average, the Vipers handle two to four intrusions per week.

"About 90 percent of people who have been approached have come into the patrolled area by accident. Many just get lost in the desert," Sergeant Landreth said. "However, we still approach everyone and take their photo in order to be able to identify them if they start making a habit of entering the (area)."

Aside from keeping potential threats out of the area, Vipers also find unexploded ordnances, mark them and call the explosive ordnance disposal flight to detonate or dispose of them.

"I think the most dangerous things out in the desert are the unexploded ordnances," said Viper Flight's Staff Sgt. Anthony Ayres. "We find more than 95 percent of all UXOs that explosive ordnance disposal detonates each week. The locals out in the desert also help us out by telling us if they see a UXO."

The desert teams are well prepared to handle any situation. 

Every team has a Viper kit that includes among other things a Global Positioning System receiver, said Viper Flight's Staff Sgt. Nathan Hintz, a member of the Iowa Air National Guard. The night shift teams also carry thermal imagers and night vision goggles.

"We're trained well and we have the equipment to do our jobs well," Sergeant Hintz said. "I like this job because we actively patrol the perimeter and I like being the first line of defense for the base."