Lt. Col. Heath J. Kerns leads the Air Force Special Operations Recruiters to scout, develop and guide future Special Warfare Airmen to their combat calling. The 330th Recruiting Squadron is the largest squadron within Air Force Recruiting Service and its mission spans the entire globe.
We talk about Air Force Special Operations, how Special Operations work around the world and how they work with other teams as well it's in the more modern warfare age all the teams are working together and it can be quite secretive, which is fun for a lot of us. We also got into the mindset of what it takes to be successful. Enjoy!
Subscribe To The Podcast
Table Of Contents
- Air Force Special Operations Training
- Why Heath Joined The Air Force
- From Special Operations Training To Real Combat
- How The Rules Of Engagement Work
- Testing Resiliency and Grit Of Air Force Trainees
- Heath's Journaling Practice
- One Piece Of Advice To Those Who Want To Join The Air Force
Air Force Special Operations Training
Mike Bledsoe: All right, We got Lieutenant Colonel Heath Kerns here. We're here to talk about Special Operations in the Air Force. I don't think the Special Ops guys get a lot of attention for Air Force too much. People think about others like you've got Green Berets and Navy seals and all this kind of stuff, but Air Force is commonly overlooked and we're talking about it today. Can you tell us a little bit about what that training looks like and how arduous it is?
Heath Kerns: Absolutely. My whole purpose in life right now for the last three years is to improve our recruiting process. So, about a little over a year ago, the highest-ranking general in the Air Force said, "Hey, I am sick of this problem. You're not getting the right number of the right quality people into Air Force Special Operations. So, knock it off figure out a different way to do this. We started from scratch trying to figure out better ways to bring in the right quality people.
Mike Bledsoe: When you came in, the whole job had to change. You didn't come and adapt to whatever was happening before it was a new assignment.
Heath Kerns: Correct. There were a lot of people who were working on it ahead before I showed up. But then once we started, then it was our job to activate, create the squadron and then build the new model, the new paradigm. That's the same time as they were changing all the training as well.
The struggle of recruitment
Mike Bledsoe: Yeah. Is it harder to find people now? Is the level of person coming in lower than before or the standards getting higher? Why is it that there's this big push to get people in the Spec Ops?
Heath Kerns: So, the part of the problem that we recognize was just attrition rates of somewhere up to 90%. So, that was a massive amount of institutional effort put in. You find 100 people and 90 of them fail. That is a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of invested in people ultimately wouldn't survive. So, just trying to figure out a better way to do that. Then we're looking at all of the military, it really is able to bring in at about 1% of the US population. More of them are qualified, but the people have different options looking for different things aren't interested in that way.
So, there's a small pool in the very beginning of the US population. Then that has decreased over time. Just with the amount of people that are medically qualified that haven't taken medications early on or diagnosed with asthma or attention deficit disorder or things like that. Those aren't all like insurmountable, but they are. You require waivers and extras and this old stuff.
Mike Bledsoe: We have a generation coming up that's sicker?
Heath Kerns: I don't know about more sick but just have more, maybe more medical interventions more sedentary lifestyles.
Mike Bledsoe: Well, I think we're all so quick in our culture to categorize some type of sickness. Then when you go into a standardized organization like in military, they don't want to see that.
Heath Kerns: Right.
Typical missions in Air Force Special Operations
Mike Bledsoe: What does a mission look like? Is there a typical mission or is there a series of typical missions that you might expect as Air Force Special Operations guy?What was your biggest "Oh shit" moment. Okay, I'm going to just kiss my ass goodbye.
Heath Kerns: Well, so, I mean closest to death is actually that was just on my free time. Yeah. So, I got a closest to death story and then I got just my first time in combat when finally the enemy was ready to start attacking me. So, I had spent four years in Air Force Academy College, two and a half years in training in special operations. So six and a half years later I am now finally ready to face my enemy.
Mike Bledsoe: Were you looking forward to that moment, during training? Are you one of those guys are like, "I want to do this, I want that challenge."
Heath Kerns: Absolutely. Yeah. I think just about all our guys are I mean occasionally I'll run into people like, "Yeah, I chose that job because I didn't want to deploy as much and I'm like, what?" I call that the mom bonus. You're like, it's cool mom. It's a little dangerous, but I get all the XYZ benefits. So, that's not that high school kid or that college guy. Now he didn't pick it because it was safe. He picked it because it was the craziest, baddest thing you get ever conceive of. If he made it through, he'd be the toughest duty ever imagined, you know? So, that's why they did that.
Why Heath Joined The Air Force
Mike Bledsoe: Is that why you joined? What was your main motivation for getting it in the first place? Because going in the Air Force Academy is a big deal in itself. I mean, that's something you got to start halfway through high school, start applying for and stuff.
Heath Kerns: Yeah. I've had a path of seeking the greatest challenge. That's not because I was good, but because I was weak. Not 'cause I was strong because I was weak. Because I recognized that when I was challenged beyond my ability that's when I had to rely on a higher power. I had to sacrifice lesser things. I had to become greater and stronger and smarter and more devoted to enduring it. So, I saw from an early age, I realized that challenges made me better. So, the worst, the challenge the better, the greater the potential for growth is.
Heath Kerns: So, it would always pick the hard way. So, often that was when we had lots of good options and say, "All right, what's the toughest? What's the one that I absolutely cannot do?" So, Air Force Academy was it. I was in no way smart enough to do that. So every day was a brutal struggle. Smashing my head against a brick wall. Just felt like an idiot every single day, barely surviving and barely making it through. Then somehow it was over one day I graduated and this is like, "All right, what's the next horrible challenge I can imagine?" Then I stumbled upon Special Operations and and then I'm like, "Wait, there's a job where I can jump out of airplanes and blow things up? Okay."
Mike Bledsoe: That sounds really cool.
From Special Operations Training To Real Combat
Mike Bledsoe: So, from that moment, starting over prep to prep, go to Air Force Academy, go to Special Operations training, and now you're in Combat for the first time.
Heath Kerns: Six and a half, seven years later, finally ready to fight. This isn't everyone's experience in any way, but my experience was, so I roll out to the, one of the hottest firebases that we have the opportunity to go to. I mean happy accident like it was my turn, I got to go to it. So, I knew it was going to be, you know, intense combat. So, we roll out on our very first mission and finally, the Green Berets that I was with and the Taliban almost had like a gentleman's agreement. Was, you show up here, and we'll fight you.
It sounds funny, but when you're fighting in certainty, they decide when they want to fight, they can be a happy civilian one day and the next day they can shoot you in the back or blow you up. So, you have to find opportunities where they want to come fight you. So, one of the opportunities we had the team that I was with had done a really good job commanding the territory. So, we had to go a long distance to find the enemy where they'd get enough balls to show up and fight us. So, this team went to the roof, the one ridgeline that was overlooking the village and we would get there and we'd wait and we'd wait for all the women and children to evacuate.
Excitement and fear in combat
Mike Bledsoe: What's going on in your mind at that point.
Heath Kerns: Excitement. There some fear like you're rehearsing. Okay, make sure I remember how to do all these things. You're prepping all your information and you're making sure you've got all those standard formats ready to go. You got standard points of interest and landmarks that you can communicate with the aircraft. So, you're prepping your gear, but a lot of that's done and now you're just waiting. Then finally comes time, we're like, "Okay, yeah, they're trickles off. There's not women and children now and time to fight." Then they opened that first volley. When that first crack goes over your head, the whistle of the bullet, it's like Wow. It's finally here, I'm finally ready to go. So, with all sobriety and seriousness, you're like, "Okay, game on. Here we go, let's do it.
We were removed when we knew where the enemy was and we were doing our things. Obviously other ones are a lot more when you get in close hand to hand combat, things totally changed. But this was for me, this is my first experience. So, I was ready and then you roll into action and then it's almost for me it was some cognitive dissonance of just recognizing, Hey, I've prepped for this a thousand times. I've called the, I've said this information and told training aircraft to blow up Conex Boxes. This is a human now. This is a person on the end of this that is trying to kill me right now and understand although I can go through it with rote memorization of knowing how I do my job at the end of this, someone will die.
Coping with life and death in the battlefield
Heath Kerns: I remember after one of my first deployments, it was the hardest time I had to come with coping with life and death and killing and losing brothers in the battlefield. It was on my first deployment, I was more in a command center role much for my first day as a young Lieutenant. We were dealing with supporting the guys in the field that were doing all the killing and things. It was after our deployment, we were all coming, we were meeting at our command center before we headed home. We're all crammed in this tiny space because normally it's an only accommodate for a few of us, but all the guys had come back from the field.
They're all together, they were really excited. They hadn't seen each other in a long time. So, there's a lot of buzz and camaraderie and guys are sharing different experiences that they come from. I walk in one room they were playing call of duty and guys were yelling and playing. "Oh I just shot you in the face." All that stuff. It's an intense, combat game. You're hearing explosions and gunfire and things like that.
Then I walk into another room and it's a movie that's playing some Christian Bale movie with a guy that was like suffering from PTSD and it was him flashing back and dealing with that. Then like another room was where our Intel analysts are processing footage of a gunship that had worked killing bad guys. There was like, I went from one very real, very live experience of a video game to a highly produced movie to the real thing. The real thing looked less real than anything else.
How The Rules Of Engagement Work
Mike Bledsoe: Who is in charge of like creating those rules? How are the rules, and I know it shifts from mission to mission, but like what is a chain of command wise? How does that work? Rules of engagement.
Heath Kerns: Yeah. I mean normally pretty, pretty high ranking and then they bounce it off the rule of law the Geneva Convention and the judge advocate general, the lawyers all way into these different things and they do develop those. There's just some grounding in that as you were fighting beyond the bounds of what normal human behavior is you still need that code that can keep you grounded to that reality. The question was do you see guys that are vengeful and things like that. When we are still bound to that code that if you feel that way, that emotion is there but it's not going to override-
Your obedience to recognizing that higher requirement that is super rare and incredible I mean, we even like in Afghanistan our enemy would come in from medical treatment. Like a week later they would show up and he's like, "Oh, it was an accident." This is clear in like we would retrieve a bullet that was one of our bullets, knowing that he had just been in a battle to kill us, but then he came for medical aid because it was the best medical aid he can get. Yeah. I was just like, "Man guys, don't you see this? We're not the bad guys here. We're here to save you.
High standards expected to our Airmen
Heath Kerns: Yeah. That's also something incredible to recognize that our Airman that we send downrange our younger. Because of the way we front load our training, so other branches, you have to go through army, infantry and then you can assess years into your contract to have the chance to be a Green Beret. Our guys can come straight in to two Special Operations and only Special Operations. So, that brings us a lot younger Airman that we put through all the coolest schools, the toughest schools, military free fall, combat dive, demolitions. All these guys get this upfront before they even get to their first team. That's usually kind of the reverse for other branches. So, that puts a lot of investment and training and responsibility into a young man.
That young man is the one connection to the United States Air force and all things air. He's the advisor to that Army Captain. He has to make those hard calls with these combat seasoned veteran as a young first time deployer he's got to be able to have the guts to say, "No, that's contrary to the rules of engagement or no, I can't assess that there's no women or children in this position. No, I can't engage." Or, "Yeah, I need to engage in. Hey, we need to advocate for a different heirs." He's the young man that is like fighting for that principal to say like, this is how we need to do it. When pressure and people's lives are absolutely on the line. That's why our standards are so high.
That's why intelligence requirements is so high. That's what the training is so incredibly difficult.
Testing Resiliency and Grit Of Air Force Trainees
Mike Bledsoe: What about mindset? Is there a train to help people stay calm and in the face of adversity?
Heath Kerns: There's occasionally some misunderstanding just as we're trying to revamp all this stuff where we made good products, we made really strong warriors through the school of hard knocks. But it was a long laborious process. It would involve a lot of crazy twists and turns. Now we're still trying to maintain that, but we're trying to do it scientifically. We're trying to do it upfront. We work on that. It's not just will you survive the grind of three years of challenge? But we hit you up front with an assessment and selection course where it's not just 'cause in the past, it was can you do 80 push-ups, yes or no pass, fail. You could be an incredible leader, but if you did one short, you were booted, you had to start all over again or you failed out all together.
Whereas now we recognize like, yeah, the physical fitness challenges are important, but that's not the most and only important thing. It's that overall whole person concept. That's done with science, with Cadre, with Operational Psychologists that look at our guys up front and say, "Hey, I'm not going to wait for this three-year grind of training too. We know you out. I'm going to do it up front intentionally with all of our experts staring at you in a very focused assessment and selection process." That resiliency and that grit and that heart is again tested all the way up front. But it's done with more of a whole person concept with a whole team of experts looking at that individual.
Having an operational psychologist in every training phase
Mike Bledsoe: Yeah. After someone makes it through that process, they're selected, they're trained is there training around the mindset that I'm not familiar.
Heath Kerns: They're starting to. In the past it was a byproduct. Whereas now we're trying to get after it directly. Now it's intentional. We have operational psychologist embedded at every phase in our training all the way up, to when we are at active duty squadrons where we have a whole team of medical professionals that exist just to ensure that human weapon system, that person is fully functioning at the highest levels so that they work on developing that mindset and actually like every mornings that our preparatory course every morning they have a psychological test that's administered.
It's like a quick little survey that says like, "Hey, how motivated am I to train today? Is there anything that that set me back from my training? Do I have any concerns about what I'm getting ready to do or things like that." How they answer may flag them to say, "Hey, this person needs to check in with the operational psychologist before training starts that day." They actually get a meeting and one on one meeting with that doc that's not trying to eliminate them or so [Inaudible] know them out. It's someone that's helping them, just like a strength coach. He's not trying to make you fail. He wants you to get stronger.
They won't wait until you're broken
Mike Bledsoe: That's something I've heard as a problem in the military before. I've got buddies that have gotten out and I've one friend who is a seal and he was having such a hard time and he concealed it because he knew that if he went in and admitted that he was having a hard time with something, that he was going to be gone. Then when he got out, he ended up coming back and trying to help quite a bit. Yeah, so it sounds like there's a preemptive thing going on with psychologists and it's not one of the things like, Oh, you're going to go see the psychologist, so you're probably just going to not do your job anymore.
Heath Kerns: Right. No. Yeah. That's the great thing about having those professionals as a part of the team, they're embedded, they're with you every day.They're a part of your-
Mike Bledsoe: They're watching you. You're interacting.
Heath Kerns: Yeah. It's from the mindset of, I'm not going to wait until you're broken and you get flagged and you're no longer usable. I'm going to first indication like, "Hey, you just stumbled." You just had a death in the family and now you're questioning and you had a really bad day. Let's talk about it". It's helping them have the tools to push all the way through.
Heath's Journaling Practice
Mike Bledsoe: That's interesting. That's cool. It's good to hear what's happening. Good. We talked a little bit before we got on journaling. I'm a huge fan of journaling. What's your journaling practice like? I'll say this real quick. Every high performer right now, the guys and girls that operate at the highest level in business or sport or whatever, journaling is a huge part is why I love asking this question.
Heath Kerns: Yeah. Well, I started a long time ago with a lot with my faith just helping me communicate, as a prayer journal and then also just like a self-reflection, self analysis. I'm sure maybe I've forgotten the quote, but the an introspective life is not worth living. You ever heard that one before?
Mike Bledsoe: No, I haven't. That's a new one.
Heath Kerns: The soccer tees or Will Ferrell or something.
Mike Bledsoe: Same thing.
Heath Kerns: Yeah. That was one of those guys. That's always helped me just be intentional with what I'm doing. Sometimes we go through life on accident, you know, like it's-
Mike Bledsoe: I think most people are going through most of life on accident. It's like everything's a surprise. Yeah.
Taking responsibility for your own life
Heath Kerns: Take responsibility for it because you are an active, persistent in your own life. I think that was one of the big things I learned at the Air Force Academy was there was so much demand, so much stress put on you at all times and you never could do all the things that you had to do. That's exactly the same with the military. You could always feel crappy about all your failures or you get acknowledged like, "Hey, I'm an active participant in this. I choose which things I do and I can choose which things I succeed at and which things I fail at." I'm going to let some of that stuff go. I'm not going to feel guilty about all the time. I'm going to make a choice.
That journaling has helped me keep balanced on that. I just processed the events of the day as I processed relationships, as I think about different communications, I've had like, "Oh man, why was that guy being such a jerk?" "I was like, "Oh, I don't know what else, "Oh,he did tell me that this other factor was probably pretty damaging, you know? I need to recognize that and respect that and communicate with them on that level before I grind them down and like, Well why did you fail at this thing?" Well, 'cause he's got a lot bigger other stuff going on, you know? So that journaling just helps me kind of process the day and reprioritize what I'm after, what I'm focused on.
Mike Bledsoe: Yeah. Find the writing down what's going on in my head. I can look at it from a different perspective much more easily.
One Piece Of Advice To Those Who Want To Join The Air Force
Mike Bledsoe: So what is your one piece of advice to someone who's thinking about like, "Oh, okay, I want to join the Air Force, I want to go Spec Ops.
Heath Kerns: Well, we find that guys and girls that do their own research are a lot more successful. The self-starter that goes out and, and knows exactly what they're getting into. So like I said, it can be a decision, you didn't get talked into something or randomly float into it. I looked at the whole world and I decided like, this was what I needed to do.
With the research, so we've stepped it up, we got a lot of resources out there where you can figure out what you're getting into and understand like, man, it is cool through no skill of my own. I have been able to be at the center of like world events where we have been at the center of that chaos. That's awesome. I think that's competitor vantage. So look at the data, look at it with an open mind, look at all the options and when you know, when you see those facts, then pick it and move out on it.
When you actually look at what Special Air Force Special Operations can provide it's pretty cool. So I'd say, make that decision then pursue it with all your heart. We'll give you every opportunity to succeed if your heart is right. So finding that deeper finding that passion, recognizing that what you want and the fact that you're going to have to discipline yourself and let go of those lesser things, sacrifices other things that aren't important to pursue doggedly pursue this path and keep fighting until you, until you make it.
Why you might not be a good fit for the military
Mike Bledsoe: So, the guys that don't make it through like what are, what are some of the weak reasons? I mean, it would be good for the military to not waste money on people who are coming in for the wrong reasons.
Heath Kerns: I you know, you get people that I don't know, that's what's a little tough because the wrong reasons for us might be the right reasons for other branches or not branches, but other jobs, so a lot of the recruiters would focus on, hey, here are the benefits of the Air Force can provide you. They'll be focused on that and it's like if you're in it for money, I can tell you about the bonus, but if that's what you're after, there's a lot other ways to get that. What you can get is that very unique chance to affect the world, the chance to be the most elite version of you ever possible.
Mike Bledsoe: I remember being in the Navy and running the guys and talking. "Why did you join?" They're like, "Oh, college money." There's other ways to get college money without putting yourself in harms way. Right?
Heath Kerns: It's kind of a cop out, but I'd say like any reason that's insufficient is not strong enough to allow you to endure all the challenges ahead of you? There's many. I entered I was like, Hey, what's the toughest thing? What's the coolest thing? You know, jumping out of airplane sounds awesome. Like, so that was a reason and that's not a bad reason. That was a reason. But it's changed over time.
The Most Important Thing In Heath's Job
Mike Bledsoe: Yeah. It sounds like you've evolved and at one point the highest leverage impact you could make was doing what you were doing then and now it's doing what you're doing now. What's the most important thing to you in your job now?
Heath Kerns: I mean, this has been a really, really cool job just because it's something that was so broken, and it works great. It works awesome for 155 jobs in the air force. But for the special operations jobs, it doesn't work. You cannot mass produce special operations forces. Quality's more important than quantity. Humans are more important than hardware.
These things are absolutely true for this small band, but they weren't true for everything else. So the system was geared to bringing, you the special operators through the large production. It was like, are you minimally qualified? Then ship as fast as possible and good luck on the end where we recognize like that doesn't work. We have to, we can't just, are you men and qualified. Do you have every opportunity to succeed? Are you ready to go? If I have to miss a quota this month to give you a better chance to make it next month, then you get that next month.
And because we focus on that quality only type of thing. Just building that model to focus on getting you leading, guiding people to their calling. Has been the coolest thing. It's been the biggest challenge I've had to deal with on a massive organization dealing with every organization in all of special warfare. I'm dealing with recruiting service and education training command.