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Sergeant confronts physical, mental challenges to complete CPE course

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, CALIF -- For Tech. Sgt. Brooke Williams, joining the 821st Contingency Response Squadron was like jumping onto a moving train.

On the first day of her new assignment at Travis Air Force Base, California, after seeing her parachutist badge and Phoenix Raven tab, her supervisor asked if she was interested in the Close Precision Engagement course at Fort Bliss, Texas.

“I don’t want my first words to my new boss to be no, right?” she said. “So I was like, yeah, sure, I’ll do it. But inside, I was like, ‘Is this something I really want to do?’ ”

It added to a months-long training docket that sent Williams around the country on a series of temporary duty assignments since joining the 821st CRS in August. In November, Williams completed the CPE course, becoming one of fewer than 20 women to do so since its inception in 2002, according to leadership at the school.

Airman 1st Class Dakota Swecker, a fellow 821st CRS Airman who worked in tandem with Williams during the training, said her gender was not a factor.

“They didn’t make any special accommodations for a woman,” said Swecker. “She’s a lot smaller than I am. We were carrying the same weight in our rucksacks and it sucked for me, so it must have been pretty rough for her, but she killed it.”

Williams said her petite stature made it challenging to haul the more than 70 pounds of gear, including a 50-pound rucksack and a 20-pound “drag bag” for her M24 sniper weapon system and its gear.

“Our rucksacks, they’re pretty big and I have a small frame, so, where some of the guys can put it on their back and get a good fit, I can’t get that fit,” she said. “I have the shoulder straps cinched as tight as they will go and it’s still not a good fit because the frame itself, it’s a metal frame, is just so large.

“I found myself in moments, like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ because my back was hurting, my legs were hurting. That was the hardest part.”

The 19-day course teaches advanced marksmanship and military scouting skills to Air Force security forces members. Their career field specializes in the protection of Air Force personnel and resources. They are charged with protecting flight lines and other sensitive places and are trained to remove the threat of snipers that could damage or destroy aircraft.

The training consisted of several components, including shooting, field craft, land navigation and a “keep in memory” game designed to train students to remember details in circumstances when their range of motion may be limited.

Williams demonstrated the shooting mechanics by drawing a crosshair on a notepad, showing how factors such as wind and distance are considered before firing.

For the shooting portion, the size of the target increases as it gets farther from the shooter, but precision is necessary — students must hit a 3-inch by 3-inch circle for the 300-meter mark, for example.

Part of the training was to psychologically overload the students, Williams said, so they are calmer should they ever face real-world situations when the training is required. For example, while displaying her memorization skills, she also had to perform physical activities such as flutter kicks and jumping jacks.

“Chances are, if I’m ever in a situation where I’m having to provide surveillance for some type of cover fire, it’s going to be in a stressful situation,” she said. “I’m going to have to learn how to work through all that and still be able to think and not get that tunnel vision.”

Williams said the psychological aspect of the training was difficult, between being new to the squadron and the low number of women who had completed the course before her.

“I was dreading it,” she said. “I wasn’t happy. I was doubting myself. That made it difficult for me, knowing that there was a possibility that I could fail. That put a lot of weight on my shoulders.”

However, she said as she progressed through the program toward graduation, her confidence grew.

“Once you pass day one, you’re like, ‘OK, now I’ve got to focus on getting through day two, focus on getting through day three’ rather than focus on getting through 19 days,” she said. “After each day, the closer and closer I got to the finish line, I stopped doubting myself.”

Staff Sgt. Robert Hicks contributed to this story.