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Air Force ROTC Field Training commander converses on challenges, cadets and the camp

Air Force ROTC Cadet Training Assistants wait as cadets get off the bus

Air Force ROTC Cadet Training Assistants await the arrival of cadets at Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, Mississippi, June 23, 2021, to start Field Training. The 2021 Field Training cycle is the largest in AFROTC history, with 452 cadre and more than 3,400 cadets, to include hold-overs from last year because of COVID-19 training restrictions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christian P. Hodge)

Man stands with arms folded

Col. Paul Tombarge, 2021 Air Force ROTC Field Training commander, is overseeing the largest Air Force ROTC Field Training encampment in history, with 452 cadre and more than 3,400 cadets, to include hold-overs from last year because of COVID-19 training restrictions. Because of the unusually large number of cadets requiring the training, it is being held at Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, Mississippi. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christian P. Hodge)

Air Force ROTC cadets scramble for cover during expeditionary skills training

Air Force ROTC cadets scramble for cover during expeditionary skills training during Field Training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, June 23, 2021. The training includes the Leadership Reaction Course, confidence course, land navigation, tactical combat casualty care, small unit tactics and mission scenarios. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christian P. Hodge)

CAMP SHELBY, Miss. --

Mandated by Congress to help develop the next generation of Air Force and Space Force leaders, Air Force ROTC Field Training is an annual, summertime 16-day, four-phase program. The curriculum includes, among other things, academic exams, flight drill evaluations, land navigation, tactical combat casualty care, small unit tactics and operating in a deployed environment. It is geared toward cadets typically in between their sophomore and junior years who will be transitioning to leadership positions at their respective detachments.

For the first time, Field Training is being held at Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center near Hattiesburg, Miss., which is roughly 240 miles from Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., home to Air Force ROTC Headquarters and where Field Training is normally held. The training was moved to Camp Shelby to accommodate the unusually large number of cadets requiring the training this year due to COVID-19 restrictions last year, which limited the number of cadets who attended.

With 452 cadre and more than 3,400 cadets, the commander of the largest and most logistically demanding Field Training in history, Col. Paul Tombarge, discusses the myriad of factors that make the 2021 encampment an arduous but rewarding endeavor for him and his team. Tombarge comes from the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the commander of AFROTC Detachment 825, and the chair, Department of Air and Space Force Science.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced at field training so far?

Tombarge: Our biggest challenge has been logistics. We brought together a 452-member cadre from across the United States; assembled a fleet of 140 vehicles, motor coaches and trailers; executed 16 supply sorties between Maxwell, Keesler AFB and Camp Shelby; procured and managed more than 280,000 supply items; conducted more than 1,877 bus transportation and 862 tactical logistics sorties; managed 69 facilities; transported 3,400 cadets from New Orleans International Airport to Camp Shelby; provided nearly 147,000 meals and 41,000 Meals Ready to Eat; and then trained and evaluated those cadets for entry into the Professional Officer Course. That includes 3,400 physical fitness assessments, 15,000 academic assessments, and more than 7,000 leadership evaluations. Essentially, we moved the rough equivalent of the U.S. Air Force Academy to Camp Shelby 77 days. That’s a huge muscle movement!

What are you most proud of or pleased with at field training this year?

Tombarge: The way our cadre members came together as a team to overcome challenges and accomplish the mission. We have 452 personnel from 145 detachments and five active-duty Air Force bases, most of whom had never met each other before, who came to Camp Shelby and in just 11 days, formed cohesive teams, solved problems, assembled our infrastructure and began training and evaluating cadets.

How are the facilities at Camp Shelby working for you and your team?

Tombarge: Camp Shelby is a 134,000-acre training center, so it is much larger and very different from the Maxwell campus. Living conditions may not be as comfortable or private, but the training ranges are excellent. Our cadets are getting a much more realistic experience of what they might see and encounter in a deployed environment.

Field Training is set up like an Air Expeditionary Wing training concept/model. What are you hoping the cadets take from that?

Tombarge: The Air Expeditionary Wing construct is likely transparent to the trainees in their daily activities. Where its value comes into play is two-fold. First, instead of a unique, Air Force ROTC staff-based construct, it is the same organizational structure we employ in the broader Air Force. When trying to determine roles and responsibilities, everyone can easily identify which squadron or group owns that mission set. Second, the AEW construct means we have commanders at all levels of the organization … squadron, group and wing. Rather than all command decisions having to rise to the Field Training commander, those squadron and group commanders can take full ownership of their units’ missions and personnel. They provide the necessary care and feeding and are empowered to make command decisions at their level of responsibility. This leads to innovation, faster decision-making and an overall better experience for the trainees.

This is an ROTC-led initiative. Can you expand on what that that means?

Tombarge: While Field Training is a congressionally mandated activity, it is entirely planned, developed, manned, funded and executed within Air Force ROTC. There is not an external organization that oversees Field Training, nor does an external organization exist to accomplish the mission. Instead, personnel assigned to our 145 detachments are the ones who plan and execute Field Training, on top of our assigned duties back at our universities. The senior leadership team began planning more than six months ago and made five trips to Camp Shelby during that time while the other cadre members began virtual training in March to prepare, all while still teaching academic classes and running their detachments all across the country.

What is your overall impression of the cadets at field training?

Tombarge: The next generation of Air Force and Space Force leaders continues to impress. The cadet training assistants we have on cadre (upperclassmen who volunteered to help train those coming up behind them) have been proactive, helping to develop innovative solutions to unique problem sets. The trainees themselves have overcome a great deal. Depending on the pandemic-related restrictions at their universities, some may have been in-person all year while others were virtual and never put on a military uniform or marched in a military formation. However, they, too, came together to quickly form teams and helped each other overcome obstacles to succeed. One of the trainees told me that he came to Field Training expecting to learn a lot about leadership, but ended up learning a lot about himself. That is the value of Field Training – placing cadets in a stressful environment with people they don’t know and letting them find that inner strength to step up as leaders; the first step toward becoming Air Force and Space Force officers.