Cadets get taste of deployed life

Cadet 1st Class Jordan Wittman, United States Air Force Academy Cadet Squadron 30, helps Staff Sgt. Matthew Jones lay out bare pallets on the assembly line at the U.S. Army Riggers detachment. Cadet Wittman is here on Deployed Ops, a summer program which sends Academy cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadet 1st Class Jordan Wittman, left, helps Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Jones lay out bare pallets on an assembly line at an Army Riggers detachment June 18, 2011, in Southwest Asia. Cadet Wittman, of Cadet Squadron 30, is downrange for Operation Air Force, which sends some cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadet 2nd Class Keegan Peckham, United States Air Force Academy Cadet Squadron 6, and Cadet 2nd Class Elliot Unseth, USAFA Cadet Squadron 16, prepare the palettes for the bundles by stringing them with fastening straps while working with the U.S. Army Riggers detachment.  Cadet Peckham and Cadet Unseth are here on Deployed Ops, a summer program which sends Academy cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadets 2nd Class Keegan Peckham and Elliot Unseth prepare pallets by stringing them with fastening straps while working with an Army Riggers detachment in Southwest Asia on June 18, 2011. Cadets Peckam, of Cadet Squadron 06, and Unseth, of CS 16, are taking part in Operation Air Force, which sends some cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadet 1st Class Jordan Wittman, United States Air Force Academy Cadet Squadron 30, pulls tightly on straps to ensure the cargo bundle is securely fastened to the pallet while working with U.S. Army Riggers June 18 at a deployed air base. Cadet Wittman is in Southwest Asia taking part in Deployed Ops, a summer program which sends Academy cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadet 1st Class Jordan Wittman secures a cargo bundle on a pallet while working with an Army Riggers detachment in Southwest Asia June 18, 2011. Cadet Wittman, who is assigned to Cadet Squadron 30, is taking part alongside other cadets in Operation Air Force, which sends some cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadet 2nd Class Erin Doran, United States Air Force Academy Cadet Squadron 22, and Cadet 1st Class Jordan Wittman, USAFA Cadet Squadron 30, work together to expedite the bundling process with U.S. Army Riggers. Cadets Doran and Wittman are here on Dep Ops, a summer program which sends Academy cadets to deployed locations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

Cadet 2nd Class Erin Doran and Cadet 1st Class Jordan Wittman work together to speed up the pallet-bundling process while working with a U.S. Army Riggers detachment June 18, 2011, in Southwest Asia. Cadets Doran, of Cadet Squadron 22, and Wittman, of CS 30, are in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility for Operation Air Force, which sends some cadets downrange to learn more about Air Force deployed operations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Cadet 1st Class Shaina Thompson)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Approximately 60 Air Force Academy cadets hit the ground in Southwest Asia June 18, seeing deployed operations firsthand and meeting deployed Airmen.

Cadets may participate in Operations Air Force between their sophomore and junior years at the Academy.

The program sends groups of cadets to Air Force bases for three weeks, where they follow officers in different career fields to gain an understanding of career responsibilities and interact with enlisted members to gain an unabashed view of leadership.

This glimpse of what many cadets refer to as the "real" Air Force is meant to develop the future officers and help them determine which career fields to put on their preference sheets. But some cadets who want even more experience apply to go on operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. If selected, they can visit a deployed location for a month and experience how the Air Force operates downrange.

Cadet 2nd Class Stephen Johnson of Cadet Squadron 17 is one of those broadening his perspective through the Deployed Ops program.

"With all the activity in the Middle East, I wanted to see for myself what's really going on," Cadet Johnson said. "Being able to talk to the professionals who are working in this environment allows me to better understand what's really happening."

The cadets can experience many different Air Force specialty codes, shadowing different officers each week. Cadet Johnson said he'd already met a multitude of people on base in the first two weeks of the program.

"I was exposed to the actual duty day and responsibilities of a B-1B (Lancer) pilot, a weapons officer, doctors and surgeons," he said. In addition, he learned "the importance of behind-the-scenes jobs like civil engineering, maintenance and equipment management in a deployed location."

Captain Thea Alli, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing protocol officer, is a 2006 Academy graduate who went through Operation Air Force during her own time at the Academy. Captain Alli was in charge of coordinating where the cadets spent their time on base during this year's program.

"It's a good opportunity for cadets to see what it's really like, and it's good for us to see what the future of the Air Force will look like since they will be lieutenants soon," Captain Alli said. "Some of the things I learned on Ops didn't make sense to me until years later. You take away more than you think."

This experience allows cadets to gain foresight on what they will be doing after graduation. Cadet 2nd Class Keegan Peckham from Cadet Squadron 06 said he has added tools to his leadership toolbox.

"I will take away how important it is to take every opportunity to help those that help you," Cadet Peckham said. "Take care of your people and they will take care of the job."