U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mitchell Polu, 817th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron tactical air control party member and joint terminal air controller poses for a picture at Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan, July 3, 2012. [photo: courtesy U.S. Air Forces Central]

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FENTY, Afghanistan  -- His father always told him, "whatever job you are doing, always do your best."

This is something the six foot Samoan took to heart and lives by to this day.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mitchell Polu, 817th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron Tactical Air Control Party member and Joint Terminal Air Controller, is one of a handful of Airmen deployed to Forward Operating Base Fenty for a nine month rotation.

But this is nothing new for the job he fills.

Polu holds the qualification known as JTAC, whose primary duty is to direct combat aircraft onto enemy targets. They are qualified and recognized to provide close air support to units in which they are attached to. And almost all times, JTACs are attached to an Army unit deployed and at home station.

Polu supports the 4th Infantry, 4th Brigade out of Fort Carson, Colo.

"The reason we are here is armed overwatch for the unit we are attached to," he said.

"I play two roles," Polu said. "I am the JTAC for the 4-4th Brigade, and I am the TACP [non-commissioned officer in charge] for 25 personnel and one radio maintainer. I am 75 percent operations and 25 percent administrative."

The technical sergeant has to always perform at his best.

TACPs are placed in dangerous situations where they have to make vital decisions in a quick amount of time, he said.

Polu was put in that same sort of situation during a five hour air assault in Patika Province, Afghanistan, that occurred on his last deployment.

"No one expected anything to happen," he said.

Polu had his day and night gear, so about 80-90 pounds on top of all his other gear, which is nothing out of the norm for a JTAC.

"I ask the battalion commander if we have enough time where I can put my gear down to do a check, and he said it wasn't a problem," he said. "I put my gear down, and all of a sudden we start to take contact."

During the confusing moments, Polu said he lost contact with the battalion commander.

"And that is the worst thing when you have to get approval to drop ordinates and the person who can approve that is missing," he recalled.

The JTAC grabbed his rucksack as quickly as possible while his weapon was swinging everywhere and his helmet was barely hanging on, he said.

"I have the aircraft I am communicating with find the commander since he was the guy with antennas sticking out, and I sprint to him to see 20 meters in front of us, a sniper had 4 to five guys pinned down."

Despite all the chaos of the battlefield, Polu had a job to do -- figure out where the bad guys were to provide close air support.

"But we could not determine it would be safe to get the bad guys and not any of the good guys," he continued. We decided we were not going to go kinetic."

What makes you a good JTAC is not always dropping the bombs, but knowing when to say no, he said with conviction.

"One of our guys took a sniper round and it was to bait someone else to go out there. One of the medics went out there and he also got hit. But we were able to locate the knuckleheads, mark the landing zone, and call in medical help."

"We were able to save at least one life that day and to save the good guys," he remembered.

Dealing with the stress of scenarios can get some out of the element, but when Polu is out on mission, he is in the zone.

"I don't really think about it," he said thoughtfully. "When stuff does happen, I don't realize it until I come back. The only time I'm able to think about it is in reflection."

Polu, who has been in the military for 14 years, grew up in a large family and the military wasn't always in his future.

"All of my siblings took a different path in life," Polu said, who is the second oldest of six children. "The black sheep suited me."

Originally the Pago, Pago American Samoa, native worked as a fuels apprentice until he cross trained into the TACP career field.

"I was the leader of a team of 28, where only four of us would go on to graduate from the TACP technical school," he said.

It was his hard work demeanor he learned from his father that helped him get through the tough training, he said.

"My dad is the person I have always looked up to," Polu said. "The dude is 56 years old, and there's not a man who can do the stuff he does."

One particular incident that sealed this for Polu was when he was home on leave a few years back.

"My dad was getting ready to cut down a tree in preparation for an incoming hurricane," he said. "So I volunteered to chop down from the top of the tree to help him out. I climbed the tree which takes me a long time to get to the top. I finally get up there and start to chop with the machete. After 20 minutes, I didn't have a single branch off that tree."

"I get down and tell my dad that it is not possible. I am young and can't do it, so there was no way he would be able to or so I thought."

Polu's father told him to take a break and rest in the shade.

"He climbs up that tree in half the time and chops down the branches, and he does it in half the time," Polu said while chuckling.

He always taught me through hard work and being a good person, you will succeed, Polu added.

"Whether you are scrubbing a toilet, whatever job you are doing, my father said to always do you best."

And with the constant change in rules of engagement and standard operating procedures, Polu has to stay well versed in both so he can pass on that information to his Airmen at the smaller forward operating bases.

"From the lowest Airmen, it has to make sense," he added. "They have to give advice to the brigade commander of the close air support assets and how we use CAS assets if it comes down to it."

Polu's main mission is to empower the TACP Airmen, he said.

"When it comes down to it, the JTAC will make the final call. They can reach back if they can't figure it out."

Everyone seems to know who Polu is, the big Samoan with the even bigger smile.

Although those who see him at first might be intimidated, they soon see his friendly and helpful demeanor.

"I look at him as a mentor and brother," said Capt. Matthew Perry, 817th EASOS air liaison officer. "I admire him for his background and the guys respect him. We have the same family principles and values and we like to share those with each other."

And although the stresses of his job are more than most in the Air Force, the Samoan knows how to decompress.

"I work out and hang out with my family and try not to bring any of the work stress home. My family has helped out a lot, especially my wife who is also in the military."

As Polu continues his deployment and military career, he hopes to pass on the same message that was conveyed to him by his father to his son and daughter - always do your best no matter what you do..


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