Staff Sgts. Aaron Conway and Brandon Cooke of the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron earned the title of best TACPs in the Air Force. Photo by Ethan E. Rocke/Coffee or Die Magazine
On the fifth and final day of the 2020 Lightning Challenge, Staff Sgts. Aaron Conway and Brandon Cooke of the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, emerged victorious, earning top honors in the competition and the right to claim the title of best TACPs in the Air Force.
Col. Danielle Willis, commander of the 93rd Air Ground Operations Wing, presented the TACP specialists with the coveted trophy, which they’ll take home to their unit until next year when the 14th ASOS will have to defend its title in the 2021 Lightning Challenge.
“This course was designed so no one competitor and no one attribute could prevail alone,” Willis said during the closing ceremony. “It required teamwork. It required strength. It required speed, accuracy, and in some cases, ingenuity. This was like watching a 100-mile endurance race every single day, and you guys were phenomenal. The winners of this competition, well and truly earned the title of Lightning Challenge champions, with full bragging rights across the TACP weapon system for the next year.”
Competitors were kept in the dark about their standings throughout the competition, and the top teams stayed close throughout the week.
Staff Sgts. Alex Mutcher and Joshua Walton from Fort Carson’s 13th ASOS took home the third-place trophy, and Capt. Robert Wilson and Airman 1st Class Elijah Talley of the 2nd ASOS out of Vilseck, Germany, finished second.
“The number two and three teams — we were all extremely close, and I thought the guys that came in second had won the competition, so whenever we heard 14th ASOS, I was shocked,” Conway said after the ceremony.
“You could go back to any one of these days and have a slightly different outcome on a different event, and it would have been another team on top,” Cooke said. “I’m super honored that we could be out here, and to be able to come through at the end and get the top place is almost surreal, considering the competition.”
The TACP specialists started their final day of the competition with a 3-mile motivation run in boots and utility uniforms through the hills and rocky trails of Reveille Peak Ranch, finishing at the pavilion area where Air Force leaders, event cadre, staff, and supporters were waiting.
Before the competitors arrived, those in attendance observed a demonstration of TACP capabilities performed by members of the 9th Air Support Operations Squadron out of Fort Hood. A TACP specialist called in simulated artillery and air support from an A-10 aircraft on airmen filling the role of enemy forces.
Before the closing ceremony kicked off, the competitors formed up in a grassy area just outside the pavilion for a round of “Honor Pushups” — a tradition among members of the Air Force special operations community in which the airmen call out the names of those from their community who have been killed in combat or training.
“To be a part of this caliber of warfighter and to be around these guys is a privilege,” Cooke said. “It’s some of the best competitors and some of the best special warfare airmen I’ve met.”
As for what the winners have planned next, Cooke said he’s looking forward to taking his kids trick-or-treating and getting home to see his wife.
“I’m going to have a few beers,” Conway said with a smile.
Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.