NAVAL AIR STATION JOINT RESERVE BASE FORT WORTH, Texas --
A call went out to the masses - their presence is needed, as battle is near. Warriors gather in twos and threes until the full number arrive.
The siren sounds.
“ALARM RED! ALARM RED! Move it, combatants! Social hour is over; you’re on my time, now!” bellowed the Mister and Madam Vice. The 2020 136th Airlift Wing Combat Dining-In had begun.
More than 200 Citizen Airmen participated in the combat dining-in February 22, 2020, at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas.
“Events such as this boost esprit de corps and resiliency,” said Tech. Sgt. Aubrey Ramos, 136th Comptroller Flight financial management technician. “It’s been too long since we’ve had an event like this. In fact, this was my first combat dining-in. I’ve done formal events, but this was by far my favorite!”
Combatants packed soft foam artillery weapons and modified uniforms. Many covered their face in camouflage paint. Deviations to uniform regulations were encouraged within good taste, including cut-off sleeves, BDU shorts with boot socks, and even a group of ‘Rosie, the Riveters’.
The Air National Guard Band of the Southwest’s rock band, Airlift, struck up several great tunes while Airmen mingled and battled, both at point-blank range and from across the hangar.
With a flag hanging from the ceiling and camouflage draped over maintenance stands, the hangar bore the evidence of hours of meticulous planning. Volunteers coordinated everything from tickets to scripts and dinner, prepared the grog in biological warfare suits, built thrones for wing leadership and cardboard C-130 tail sections to use as target boxes for the battle.
“A lot of creative, productive, helpful individuals brought different skills to the table,” said Ramos. “They dedicated both duty and non-duty hours, working together. This was an amazing team!”
Attendees included a range of Citizen Airmen from leadership all the way to trainees in the student flight. For some, this event opened up doors they felt were closed. Trainee Jarrod Keys, a future cyber-systems operator currently awaiting training, has noticed a marked change in the demeanor of his Wingmen as a result of this event.
Keys said he and his Wingmen had recently finished basic training, so they had not yet had the chance to see a lighter side of military tradition.
“I was taken aback by how much I was enjoying myself,” said Keys. “It was hilarious seeing all the major leadership in crazy getups. Seeing their enthusiasm helped me to see leaders as less of a uniform and more of who they are as a person. It broke down the barrier and made them approachable.”
The dining-in combined traditions of formality with moments of levity and shenanigans. Toasts were made to the Colors, to the chain of command, distinguished guests, and finally to our fallen comrades. A table was also set in tribute to the nation’s brothers and sisters who are prisoners of war or missing in action.
Airmen in HAZMAT suits prepared the grog bowl, a mixture of potable liquids one would not typically combine to make a refreshing drink. An obstacle course blocked the way to the grog, filled with tricycles, tires, a low-crawl area, and pools of water. During a grog run, foam bullets pelted runners from all sides, and foam mortars bombarded the course. Any infractions to the rules would have the perpetrator sent through the gauntlet to reach a beverage they will never forget, all in the name of esprit de corps!
“The grog was disgusting!” said Keys, as he wrinkled his nose. “We helped clean it up afterward, and it was just gross. But my favorite moment of the night was when Lt. Putman was called to the grog to be a Wingman for Senior Airman Boyd.
Putman, 136th Financial Management budget officer, had spent time helping the student flight prepare their uniforms and learn the customs and courtesies of a combat dining-in. He’d warned them, “Don’t call me to the grog!”
“We were already having fun,” said Keys. “But when the lieutenant got called out -- we lost it!”
As Putman worked his way through the obstacle course, the student flight lined up with their foam dart guns and pelted him, cheering him on and laughing along. When he transitioned from one obstacle to the next, it was his moves which impressed his troops.
“That was great,” exclaimed Keys. “And the dive he took to the low crawl was fantastic! It made me miss my shot. I have a newfound appreciation for him.”
The evening’s highlight was a presentation from Don Graves, WWII U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Iwo Jima survivor, who stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima back on February 19, 1945.
“A favorite moment of mine was the collective hush felt during the guest speaker’s first-hand accounts of war,” said Ramos.
Graves recounted his story from the beginning, convincing his mother to allow him to join the Marines. His retelling captivated the audience as he relived moments, describing all the sounds, smells, and emotions he encountered. Airmen leaned in as he described the photo of a young woman in the destroyed helmet of a Marine whose life had just ended.
“I felt a physical shift in my body as I leaned in,” said Ramos. “I was hanging on the realization that this may be my only in-person interaction with a WWII Iwo Jima veteran.”
Graves was sure to sprinkle the retelling with lighter anecdotes as well, such as Japanese soldiers calling out for him to bring them chocolate. He had just made a pot of hot chocolate while they were close by, close enough to smell it and know “that smells like good chocolate.”
The night was nearly over, and the alarm sounded again. The hangar broke out into all-out battle! Units swarmed the field, battle music filled the hangar, and foam bullets were flying! Those without a weapon took up defensive positions, guarding the target boxes with Flat Stanleys of wing leadership. These three-foot facial images of wing leadership made for a fun mixture of glares, stares and smiles. The Flat Stanleys were key for defense, as the ammo making its way into the target boxes determined the winner.
The night ended with high-fives, cheers, and numerous memories to relive for those who could not attend. For some, it’s been too long since they’ve enjoyed an event of this caliber. For others, it provided new avenues for resiliency.
“I think this will impact resiliency in the wing,” said Keys. “I feel more comfortable talking to anyone now. It’s created a common ground. I hope we do that more often.”