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Sunday June 18, 2000

Air Force Unit Marks 10th Year

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla., USA ( AP ) - They've flown helicopters behind enemy lines to rescue downed pilots, and their members have paid with their lives on missions around the world.

For the past decade, the Air Force Special Operations Command has specialized in combat rescue, anti-terrorism and psychological warfare, the kinds of missions that have been on the increase in the post-Cold War era. And while most of the military has been downsized in recent years, its numbers have grown.

``They're the kind of people if you're in trouble you'll want to come and get you. They don't know `can't' or `won't,''' said Herbert Mason, the command historian.

This week, the Special Operations Command, based at Hurlburt, is celebrating its 10th year.

It now has 11,500 active duty, National Guard and Reserve members at six bases around the world, including Britain, Japan and South Korea, and a fleet of about 160 aircraft.

And its people tend to stick around, staying in the military at rates higher than the rest of the Air Force.

``One of the things that makes them stay in is that they feel like they have worthy work,'' said Lt. Gen. Maxwell C. Bailey, the commander of Air Force Special Operations.

During last year's Kosovo conflict, Special Operations helicopters dodged heavy gunfire to rescue the only two American pilots downed behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. Its transports dropped 101 million NATO propaganda leaflets, and flying broadcast stations from a Special Operations Air National Guard unit in Pennsylvania aired radio and television programs.

In 1991, a year after the command was formed, its helicopters led the opening assault on Iraqi radar installations in the Persian Gulf War. They also rescued downed pilots, but lost 14 of their own crew members when a gunships was shot down over Kuwait.

Another gunship went down at sea off the coast of Kenya in 1994 in an accidental explosion, killing eight of 14 crew members. The plane had just taken off from Mombasa, Kenya, for a surveillance flight over the capital of Somalia.

Although they did not reach command status until 1990, the air commandos date to World War II, when specially trained pilots dropped spies, supplies and leaflets over Nazi-held Europe.

They worked in the Tactical Air Command and the Military Air Lift Command but their skills didn't become a top priority until 1980, when five airmen and three Marines died in a crash on a failed mission to rescue American hostages from the U.S. embassy in Iran.

The failure prompted efforts to improve special forces - including the creation of the joint U.S. Special Operations Command in 1986. The Air Force special operators received command status four years later.

The command plans to add to its helicopters and planes the new tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey. The aircraft is innovative, it flies like an airplane but lands and takes off like a helicopter, but it has been caught in controversy since a training crash April 8 killed 19 Marines.

``It'll give us the ability to go twice as far and twice as fast as our current helicopter does over a single period of darkness,'' Bailey said. ``And we really prefer to operate in the dark because we feel like that's where we have advantages over any potential adversary.''

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