Another world away

Master Sgt. David Wilburn manned the turret of his unit's vehicle while deployed to Afghanistan with Army special forces. Sgt. Wilburn, a joint terminal attack controller, is now the operations sergeant at the 94th Airlift Control Flight at Dobbins. While deployed in Afghanistan, Sergeant Wilburn stayed busy, calling in more than 240 missions in 270 days and surviving two major ambushes and an IED blast. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. David Wilburn manned the turret of his unit's vehicle while deployed to Afghanistan with Army special forces. Sgt. Wilburn, a joint terminal attack controller, is now the operations sergeant at the 94th Airlift Control Flight at Dobbins. While deployed in Afghanistan, Sergeant Wilburn stayed busy, calling in more than 240 missions in 270 days and surviving two major ambushes and an IED blast. (Courtesy photo)

Fighters loyal to an Afghan warlord patrol alongside the special forces unit that Master Sgt. David Wilburn was assigned as a joint terminal attack controller while deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. Their mission: "Shake the bushes." (Courtesy photo)

Fighters loyal to an Afghan warlord patrol alongside the special forces unit that Master Sgt. David Wilburn was assigned as a joint terminal attack controller while deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. Their mission: "Shake the bushes." (Courtesy photo)

Two Afghan children linger near concertina wire after they are given candy by Master Sgt. David Wilburn and other troops on patrol there in 2003. (Courtesy photo)

Two Afghan children linger near concertina wire after they are given candy by Master Sgt. David Wilburn and other troops on patrol there in 2003. (Courtesy photo)

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga., -- Believe it or not, getting shot at and living in constant danger wasn't all that hard to get used to - he'd trained for that - it was the environment that really got to him. The place was scrub-brush, desert and thin mountain air that could be as hot as Death Valley or colder than Denver. He didn't know he'd be here when he signed up and he didn't know he'd miss it when he left.

Master Sgt. David Wilburn has the quiet confidence of a man who knows his work and does it well, no matter what the task. He's holds three Air Force specialties and is currently the Operation NCO at the 94th Airlift Control Flight here. But, when he fulfilled his military dream and joined the Air Force at the age of 33 he was trained in Air Ground Equipment and then at the age of 38 he cross trained into a more dangerous career, joint terminal attack control.

After their intense 16-week technical school at Hurlburt Field, Fla., Sergeant Wilburn and other "JTACs" train with the Army and Marines in ground combat, weapon's systems, survival and assault schools because they fight right alongside other services in some of the most dangerous places on earth. A JTAC is the go-between for the commander on the ground and the pilots providing close air support during combat missions.

While assigned to the 165th Air Support Operations Squadron in Brunswick Ga., Sergeant Wilburn was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. Before he could leave, he had to go through six months of training and a two-week selection process before he was allowed to team up with the Special Forces he would fight alongside for the next nine months.

"We went to the range constantly; we had to be up to date on all our aircraft and weapons systems. We did a twelve-mile 'ruck' with about 90 pounds of gear, fired all our weapons, did self aid buddy care and then controlled airspace at the end," said Sergeant Wilburn.

Part of the challenge of Sergeant Wilburn's job is knowing the right way to use the aircraft currently in the area. The radio can bring a lot to the fight, but knowledge and proper communication are essential when bombs are falling, said Sergeant Wilburn.

"You have to really know the footprint pattern of all your weapons so you don't get blown up. ... A lot of times you could be 'danger close,'" he said.

While a firm grasp of air control and weapons systems were essential to Sergeant Wilburn's job, another requirement is grit - and lots of it. The joint-service group he was attached to had an "unconventional" mission. Their job was to "shake the bushes" and they did their job well with dangerous results.

"We would go out on 14-16 hour patrols. We'd get shot at everyday - mostly from mountain tops and ridges. You'd hear the rounds going by and wouldn't even know where they (fighters) were. ... If we couldn't take on the problem with the 'organic' weapons, what we had with us, then the commander would ask me for air support," Sergeant Wilburn said.

Coming back from destroying a weapons cache, the group was traveling through a wadi - the dried-up river beds that, when not filled with rainwater from the mountains, serve as roads in much of Afghanistan - when they were ambushed and a rocket propelled grenade came screaming by Sergeant Wilburn's head.

"It's not like home, where you have twenty different ways to get to Atlanta. In Afghanistan, because of the terrain, there's usually only one way to get from point A to point B. I only saw one paved road the whole time I was there," Sergeant Wilburn said.

Because of this, ambushes were a critical threat. On this day, the 12-man group was outnumbered by 100 fighters who began the attack by firing the RPG at Sergeant Wilburn's unarmored Humvee - he was in the turret manning a 40 mm grenade launcher.

"I turned to yell 'Near side ambush!' to the medic riding in back, but couldn't really see him through all the tracers flying between us," Sergeant Wilburn said. "Later, one of the guys in the rear Humvee told me that the RPG missed me by a foot and a half."

Enemy rounds pinged off the vehicle, antennas on the roof were ripped off by small arms fire and the tires blew from bullet holes. Sergeant Wilburn, still in the turret, was never hit. The fighters were too close for grenades, so he abandoned the turret gun and began firing his personal weapon - his barrel chasing three men off to the left.

Instead of running to fight another day, the captain in command of the two-Humvee patrol outflanked the ambush and killed several fighters, running the rest off. Some retreated into a nearby compound and a nightlong standoff ensued. Sergeant Wilburn called on an AC-130 Gunship in the area.

"The pilot circled over and gave me a real good idea of what was going on in there. I had him describe everything to me. The captain of our group didn't want aircraft to destroy the place because we didn't know if there were women or children in there - we learned later there weren't. The next morning, when he made the call to go in, I was able to give him a map I had drawn - all the way down to doors and windows," Sergeant Wilburn said.

He stayed on the perimeter while members of the group began to clear the compound at daylight, watching as they "fragged" a room he saw a fighter run out firing an AK-47, hitting the team's medic in the thigh and the body armor on the man's chest caught one. Sergeant Wilburn called in a Medivac chopper and got the wounded man out. Then he called in another kind of help.

"The captain came over and said, 'Do your thing,' and I told him 'Alright, but let's back up,' because by that time I had four A-10s and two Apaches on station," Wilburn said. "We pretty much leveled the place.

"We had a large crowd by that time waiting to see what we were going to do. We couldn't back down in front of them. ...There were a lot of days we'd go into a town and they'd wave as we were coming in and shoot while we were going out."

Because of the shear number of enemies, that ambush was the "hairiest," of his experiences while in the desert but before his tour was over, he'd survive one more major ambush and also survive being blown out of his Humvee by an IED. Even after all that, calling in more than 240 missions in 270 days, when he left he felt a twinge of sorrow.

Sergeant Wilburn's deployment to Afghanistan was a special experience for him. He worked in a close unit of Army and Navy Special Forces, his "brothers" by the end of his stay. Saying goodbye to the extreme temperatures, constant danger and separation from his family also meant saying goodbye to the strong bonds formed under the stress of combat.

"I was so glad to be home and see my wife and children, but I felt guilty that I left my team behind - that they were still there and I got to go home," he said.