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Combatives instructor makes real-world experience count in the classroom

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
With its heavily padded floors and walls, the combatives training gym is an unusual workplace in the Air Force.

After all, it is likely the only place an Airman can attempt to choke-hold an NCO or even officer and walk away lauded for his technique and execution.

However, should Airmen attempt to brawl with Staff Sgt. Felix Simon, their efforts will likely not go far. Simon is a 736th Security Forces Squadron senior combatives instructor at the Pacific Regional Training Center here and trains security forces Airmen on proper use of hand-to-hand defense techniques.

During practice sessions, Simon moves calmly between the pairs of wrestling Airmen. He corrects a wrongly placed hold here and there, or reminds a struggling defender to block access to his side arm as the Airmen sweat through the mock-scuffle.

Containing terms like "shrimping," and "neck wrenches," the list of techniques Airmen learn in class seem to belong on a seafood menu or in a mechanic's toolkit, but despite the odd vocabulary, skills learned in the classroom may one day save a patrolman's life.

"We start at the beginning," Simon said. "For Airmen without fighting experience, we teach basic fighting stances, how to get up safely and effectively, different strike techniques and kicks.

"We then instruct the Airmen how to submit somebody and how to effectively get out of a submission hold," he continued. "While keeping in mind that on duty you're wrestling with all your gear and equipment."

The course also focuses on a balanced use of force and weapons retention during a fight, which is vital for law enforcement officers in the field who usually carry their duty weapon when engaging suspects. While a military police member has strict rules of engagement, in practice as in real life, the simulated perpetrator may act unpredictably and could attempt to grab for the officer's pistol.

"If I'm at the gate and confronted by an non-compliant individual who may try to take my weapon, I need to be able to fight from the ground to keep control of my own sidearm while I apprehend him myself or wait for backup," Simon said. "The officer has to be able to fight for an unknown time period to control a suspect, while also keeping his weapon safely in its holster. It's interesting watching people go through practice moves just fine, but when you place a weapon on them, the whole dynamic shifts when somebody grabs for their sidearm."

When the adversary succeeds in grabbing for the pistol, Simon stops the scenario immediately. What would mean a life-threatening situation in the real world, allows Simon to readjust trainees' techniques and improve their chance of gaining control of their opponent.

"A Defender's response needs to be proportionate to that of subject's actions," Simon said. "If a suspect tries to grab my weapon, that would justify force. However, if he or she became compliant and non-hostile, I would have to back it down. We try to match what the suspect is giving us, or go one cautionary step above to remain safe."

Adopted from the Army and originally designed to equip post-World War II aircrews with survival, evasion, resistance and escape techniques, hand-to-hand combatives have quickly been adopted by Air Force security forces units as another way to encounter hostile individuals without using life-threatening force.

"Security forces combatives is a little different from anything else," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Iannarelli, a fellow instructor at the PRTC who has worked with Simon for the last nine months. "While we deal with weapons day in and day out, the Air Force realized we can handle things hand-to-hand and not necessarily use tasers, pepper spray or batons. It gives you another tool and another option you can use to save your life and the lives of those around you."

For the students, all security forces members serving in the Indo-Asia Pacific region, the training offers new ways to deal with dangerous encounters, said Airman 1st Class Lenard Bennett, one of Simon's recent combatives students and defender assigned to the 736th SFS.

"There are many situations where we don't want or can't use lethal force," he said. "Before I came into the Air Force, I thought cops were always going to use their weapon or taser to defend, but we always want to use the proper escalation of force. And combatives is much less likely to inflict harm on a suspect.

"The team here is very knowledgable," Bennett continued. "The biggest thing is to come in with an open mind. I came in from a wrestling background, but even so, a lot of the techniques were new to me."

The teaching team instructs a wide range of skill levels, from technical school graduates to seasoned officers who attend refresher courses. For Simon, transitioning from the harsh tone of real-world operations was difficult at first.

"I went from being a squad leader in charge of 14 people to coming in as an instructor," he said. "It was a challenge because I had to downshift a little bit, step back and realize that you're not always talking to experienced deployers but also to Air Force cops who may not have been downrange. I can't always expect advanced tactics, but have to teach everybody the foundation." 

As demanding and important as the combatives training is, for Simon and his fellow instructors it is only a small part of their responsibilities. During the rest of his time at the PRTC, Simon also focuses on other deployment and sustainment skills taught at the PRTC complex, where the cadre members train frontline defenders on U.S. Central Command and regional training requirements to support contingency missions and home station security.

The demanding syllabus includes land navigation, convoy operations, vehicle tactics and dismounted security, expeditionary patrol and entry control procedures and counter-IED, reporting, shooting and communication techniques.

Simon specializes in vehicle tactics and urban operations, which allow Airmen to move safely through a town, enter buildings and systematically clear rooms.

"We put them into different situations and scenarios so the teams can practice the shooting and communication routines they learned," he said. "We build their skills up to being able to run a squad through a scenario and navigating 12 to 13 people while directing all those moving pieces without endangering each other."

During urban training, Airmen fire dye-marking cartridges, similar to paint balls, instead of bullets. Paint splatters unequivocally show when Airmen have made a mistake.

"This helps us teach the difference between acceptable cover and concealment," Simon said. "When we use blanks, it is difficult to know if you are taking appropriate cover, but if you get hit with that simulation round, you know for sure. The students really love that element of realism."

While much of the training is light-hearted and allows Airmen to practice their skills together, Simon said he knows what Airmen learn here can quickly turn into real-life situations.

"As instructors, we ideally have up-to-date deployment experience, so we can take that back to the classroom," Simon said. "We constantly research and always try to stay ahead of the game to keep the actual mission objective in mind. So when we get our lesson plans, we know what we talk about because we are subject-matter experts and can put a personal spin on our lessons. We break it down for the lowest-ranking Airmen and teach from our own experience."

Before joining the all-volunteer teaching team and receiving their cadre tab, prospective instructors at Commando Warrior have to pass strict cadre examination boards and knowledge-based skills tests. Finally, they complete the full training as students before starting to teach their first trial courses under the close supervision of more experienced instructors, such as Simon.

"Sergeant Simon is really a force multiplier for us," Iannarelli said. "As a senior cadre member he trains other instructors like me, and that leads us to have more certified instructors - which in turn enables us to train more defenders in (the Pacific Air Forces)."

Simon's perspective on the training is shaped by four deployments, three to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, all including outside-the-wire missions. Before coming to Guam, Simon was assigned to the 822nd Base Defense Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. Freed from the daily grind of guard or patrol duty, Simon said teams trained every day in anticipation of their next deployment.

His first few deployments fell into what Simon calls the "walk, crawl, run" phase of his career. There was much to learn and he gained experience during operations off base and detainee transports during the drawdown in Iraq.

During his deployment to Afghanistan, however, Simon said things changed. There, his convoy was attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade one day and suffered a roadside bomb attack on another.

"Bagram Air Base really was my trial-by-fire. A lot of things happened," Simon said. "We got there in the middle of winter. Because of snow cover, it was known as the off-season for the Taliban fighters, but by February, the base suffered their first mortar attack of the year."

Before arriving to Bagram, the base averaged a mortar attack a week, Simon said the base hadn't been a target for insurgents for almost two months when a rocket-propelled grenade impacted.

"I saw a flash and heard an explosion," he recalled. "I thought 'What the heck?' And from one moment to the next, we were simply reacting. That's why I like to tell my students that you can literally go from a calm day to having to act without hesitation."

During a later mission, riding in the rear vehicle, Simon was taking notes as an enroute recorder when a roadside bomb hit close to the group's first vehicle, which was occupied by one of Simon's Airmen. The first vehicle kept driving to escape possible further attack but the explosion's crater prevented other vehicles from following.

"For what felt like an hour, we couldn't't establish any communications with his vehicle," Simon recalled the first moments. "Later I realized only 30 seconds or so had gone by."

Desperate to connect and check on his teammates, Simon then exited the vehicle and sprinted to the lead vehicle where he found his supervisee alive and well. The Airman had suffered a minor concussion but the vehicles protective armor kept the occupants sheltered from further injury. It was a close call both Airmen will likely remember for the rest of their lives.

"We still talk about that night from time to time and we're both grateful about how the situation turned out," Simon said with a smile.

The experiences downrange, Simon said, remind him of the very real dangers the training mimics and motivates him to do his best. After all, he said, he is not just a cadre member, but will go on future deployments with his fellow defenders.

"Each day, I go in there with the mindset that each one of my students could serve next to me during another deployment," he said. "Not only am I responsible for their well-being, but they are going to be responsible for their teammates. So I need to come and bring my A-game so when it comes time, they can remember what we taught them and apply it confidently."

While training days can be long under the relentlessly shining sun on Guam, Simon said teaching fellow security forces members to earn essential job skills is a worthwhile mission.

"It's extremely rewarding to know that I will take an Airman and build them up to a necessary confidence level in order to deploy downrange," Simon said. "I play a critical part in that person's ability to get the job done not only safely, but also having that tactical mindset and confidence in themselves."

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