Air Force’s 17th Special Tactics Squadron Surpasses 6,900 Days of Combat Alongside Rangers

September 3, 2020Joshua Skovlund
17th sts

A Special Tactics Airman with the 17th Special Tactics Squadron fires an M4 carbine during Jaded Thunder at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Aug. 20, 2018. Photo courtesy of DVIDS/Tech. Sgt. Sandra Welch.

The US Air Force’s 17th Special Tactics Squadron (STS) recently celebrated a milestone —  more than 6,900 days engaging the enemy in combat. Since their initial response in October 2001 following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they have been working side by side with the US Army’s premier special operations raid force, the 75th Ranger Regiment.

“We fight, bleed and laugh beside [the Rangers]. We win as a team or fail as a team,” said US Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Duhon, a tactical air control party, or TACP, in an Air Force press release. “When we are downrange, there is no deviation or segregation between Air Force and Army. We are one team fighting daily together to overcome adversaries.”

The primary mission of the 17th STS is to attach Special Tactics TACPs to the 75th Ranger Regiment to further enhance the regiment’s capabilities with precision air strikes and access to the battlefield. 

The 17th STS has brought destruction to the enemy throughout operations Iraqi Freedom, Inherent Resolve, Enduring Freedom, and Freedom’s Sentinel. Since entering the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the 17th STS has been deployed to combat zones continually. The squadron is split up and co-located at three different sites with the 75th Ranger Regiment’s five battalions.

A Special Tactics airman with the 17th Special Tactics Squadron fires an M4 carbine.
A Special Tactics airman with the 17th Special Tactics Squadron fires an M4 carbine during Jaded Thunder at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Aug. 20, 2018. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Sandra Welch, courtesy of DVIDS.

In order to enter the squadron’s ranks, conventional TACP airmen enter a weeklong assessment at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The assessment is designed to run the Special Tactics candidates through challenges that test the individual’s limits both physically and mentally. Candidates are then hand-picked for service within the squadron.  

The members of the 17th STS train with their respective Ranger battalions during training cycles in order to work together fluidly while deployed. The squadron is primarily made up of TACP airmen. In addition to the TACPs in the unit, there are special reconnaissance airmen, combat controllers, special tactics officers, and combat mission support airmen.

“No other unit in the [United States Air Force] offers the opportunity to close with and destroy enemies of the United States like those of us selected to support the Ranger Regiment,” said another Special Tactics TACP from the 17th STS in the press release. “The Ranger Regiment is its own legend-generator and the opportunity to serve alongside one of the most lethal light infantry forces on earth is humbling.”

US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch, assigned to the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the nation’s third-highest medal for gallantry against an armed enemy of the US in combat.
US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch, assigned to the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the nation’s third-highest medal for gallantry against an armed enemy of the US in combat. Photo courtesy of the US Air Force.

One of the many impressive airmen to serve in the 17th STS, Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch, a TACP, was awarded the Silver Star Medal on April 9, 2019, for his actions during a night raid in Afghanistan on April 25, 2018.

According to an Air Force Times article, Kelsch’s team was involved in a firefight during a raid on a compound that ended quickly after the strike force detained their high-value target (HVT). While on target, the team received intelligence of a second HVT not far from them, so they moved on to their second target of the night. As they approached the target house, they were ambushed.

After a teammate was shot in the chest, Kelsch took cover behind a pile of stones under the intense enemy gunfire. Kelsch proceeded to call in several danger-close fire missions, enabling the team to recover their wounded comrade. Kelsch took a round to a magazine on his chest plate while he was calling in fire.

Master Sgt. Phillip Paquette, one of the senior Rangers on the ground, was there with Kelsch during the battle.

“Sergeant Kelsch is the epitome of a professional,” Paquette said in an AFSOC press release. “One of [his] greatest attributes is his dedication to the mission and fellow Rangers. Sergeant Kelsch’s actions directly contributed to the recovery of wounded team members and the safe extraction of the objective area.”

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. He went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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