The ‘kill chain’: How Wichitans fight in combat from here

Maj. Janell Blaufuss poses for a picture near her office for the 184th Intelligence Wing of the Kansas National Guard on Wednesday. She led 425 combat missions while sitting at a computer at McConnell Air Force Base, where she provided real-time video intel using drones for troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Feb. 15, 2017)
Maj. Janell Blaufuss poses for a picture near her office for the 184th Intelligence Wing of the Kansas National Guard on Wednesday. She led 425 combat missions while sitting at a computer at McConnell Air Force Base, where she provided real-time video intel using drones for troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Feb. 15, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Kansas National Guard Maj. Janell Blaufuss talks about the difficult part of her job taking lives. She led teams that helped kill senior Taliban fighters and other insurgent fighters. Her medal citation for outstanding service says her work involv

From 2009 to 2012, while never leaving Wichita, in a secret room at McConnell Air Force Base, Maj. Janell Blaufuss took part in 425 combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places she won’t name.

She protected U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers.

She led teams that helped kill senior Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, insurgent fighters in Iraq, and other combatants in other countries. “We’re considered part of the kill chain,” as she put it.

Her medal citation for outstanding service says her work involved “the neutralizing of 92 high value individuals and the finding of 398 improvised explosive devices – saving lives.”

From her video screen in Wichita, Blaufuss saw those enemy combatants die, blown up in Predator and Reaper missile strikes, or in artillery fire that she helped direct from Wichita.

She never took up the military’s standing offer of help from psychologists or military chaplains after her battles.

She didn’t need that help, Blaufuss said.

We saved lives.

Maj. Janell Blaufuss, Kansas Air National Guard

“We saved lives,” she said.

“And when you do that, sometimes, other people have to die.”

A curtain pulled back

Her role in the “kill chain,” as she called it, was to lead a team of 10 to 15 enlisted airmen trained to analyze real-time video from Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft. “Multi-source intelligence analysts,” she called her team members.

Mission teams like Blaufuss’ sit, mostly together in one room, at McConnell. They analyze what they see on their video screens, then communicate in real-time internet chat, with Marines or Army soldiers on the ground, and with the people who remotely fly the Predators and Reapers.

It’s mostly top-secret work, carried out mostly by Kansas Air National Guard service personnel who work part time, only a few days a month.

For years, the military kept the combat role of Kansans and Wichitans mostly secret.

The secrecy, in part, comes from the need to protect the U.S. military personnel, including while they’re stationed in Wichita.

According to the 184th Intelligence Wing, which Blaufuss still serves in, one of its officers, Lt. Col. Todd Kavouras, ended up several years ago on an Islamic State website hit list, targeted for death.

Kavouras, who commands the Smoky Hill Air National Guard bombing range near Salina, said he shrugged off the danger, “mostly,” though it made him occasionally look over his shoulder.

The military still keeps the 184th’s work mostly secret.

My love for my country is deep and abiding.

Maj. Janell Blaufuss, Kansas Air National Guard

That penchant for total secrecy changed recently.

The 184th wing commander, Col. David Weishaar, decided to lift the curtains of secrecy a bit, in part because the intelligence work, the cyber work and the reconnaissance work the wing does have now made mostly sedentary but tech-heavy units like his “the leading edge of the U.S. military.”

People here deserve to know about the general nature of that work, Weishaar said. For one thing, Air National Guard personnel are far more deeply embedded in their community than full-time military personnel are in theirs, he said.

“I thought people here should know more about us and what we do,” Weishaar said. “People in this wing, here in Wichita, are your brothers, your sisters, your neighbors, your fathers and sons.”

Two of Weishaar’s sons have served in his wing; one of them, Jon Weishaar, still works for the wing and is now a missions operations commander – trained by Blaufuss.

People here also deserve to know, Col. Weishaar said, that the wing is not fully staffed, and would like to recruit more people for computer work and other work that could create training and tech career opportunities for those who join.

Weishaar authorized interviews for this story, including about roles done supporting combat.

He asked an Air National Guard officer, Capt. Matt Lucht, to sit through all interviews to help ensure no secrets were compromised.

War, fought from home

Most fellow Kansans might not suspect that Blaufuss took part in hundreds of battles, that she saw people die because of her work.

She’s a life-long Kansan, raised in Olpe, a small town south of Emporia. “God, family and country are part of who they are there,” she said.

Her family visited cemeteries on all Memorial Days. It was in those cemeteries, as a child, watching American Legion ceremonies, that she first felt an intense patriotism. “My love for my country is deep and abiding,” she said.

She has seldom left Kansas, except for Air Guard training. Before she joined the Air Guard, at age 30, at Emporia State University, she earned undergraduate degrees in math (with an emphasis in computer science) and economics (with a minor in accounting). She also earned a master’s in business administration from Wichita State University.

The killing was only a minor part of what we did.

Maj. Janell Blaufuss, Kansas Air National Guard

Before she became the full-time comptroller (finance officer) for the 184th Intelligence Wing, she worked full time at the Social Security Administration in Wichita, serving some weekends for the Air Guard at McConnell.

She’s 45, with the minor worries that many people her age carry: She worries about staying in shape, and how she’ll look in a photograph for the newspaper. “Fifteen years later (after joining up), my body is telling me, this is why young kids need to join the military.”

Like many other Guard members at McConnell, she does community service work. Her father, John A. Blaufuss, the longtime comptroller for Emporia State, was killed by a drunken driver in 2005. She and her dad had known the driver all his life. She forgave the driver, but gives talks now at gatherings raising awareness about the dangers of impaired driving.

In her interview for this story, in talking about death and its aftermath, the only time she cried was when she talked about her father.

No doubts, no regrets

The battles were exhausting.

“We’d provide the eyes so the guys on the ground could make better decisions,” Blaufuss said. “Less sexy work, but just as important, was that we’d be on a stakeout. We’d do reconnaissance before a raid, or before we’d go round up the bad guys. The killing was only a minor part of what we did.”

In internet chat, her team would tell the troops what lay ahead of them, and what the bad guys, as she called them, were doing.

She declined to describe any details from her 425 missions, 84 of which took place in what the military calls “troops-in-contact events.”

Several years ago, by order of the President of the United States, she was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.

The medal citation reads, in part:

“As a Mission Operations Commander, Major Blaufuss commanded 425 MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions; overseeing her crew’s exploitation of 4,132 hours of full-motion video intelligence.

“Providing vital and persistent over-watch for U.S. ground forces, Major Blaufuss’s team enabled United States and Coalition forces greater freedom of movement to execute raids against insurgent strongholds and remove numerous senior and mid-level Taliban leaders from the battlefield.

“In addition, she passed critical reporting to friendly forces regarding possible improvised explosive device locations; allowing convoys already on the move to avoid these deadly threats, and on multiple occasions, resulted in successful operations by explosive ordinance teams disabling the devices before they could threaten ground forces.”

She never personally pulled a trigger that killed people; she and her team were the eyes, and not the hands, in battles.

“Every person in my crew understands that that day might be a day of nothing, where nothing happens, or it might be a day where we’re responsible for taking somebody’s life,” she said.

“So we’re always training to do that, in accordance with the law, and we’re always providing after-care, for any mental disturbance after the fact.”

She smiled and shrugged. The battles never cost her any sleep, in part because she was a step removed, in part because every one of those combat operations involved protecting Marines, soldiers and others from harm.

“There are things that you see and do that you can’t unsee and undo,” she said.

“But we protected people. That’s what we did.”

‘You guys had our backs’

Blaufuss remembers the tipsy U.S. Army soldier who walked up to her table in a restaurant in Manhattan one day, a couple of years ago. Manhattan is a 20-minute drive from Fort Riley, where thousands of U.S. Infantry and other soldiers are based.

The soldier in Manhattan was just a kid, Blaufuss said, 21 or so, curious and friendly. In the restaurant, he’d sized up Blaufuss and her dining companion as military people, though they wore civilian clothes. So he walked over to say hello.

He appeared to be well past his first beer – until the moment she told him what she did for the United States military.

“I work in a DGS,” she said.

The soldier stared.

He instantly sobered up.

Maj. Janell Blaufuss, Kansas Air National Guard

“He instantly sobered up,” she said.

DGS means “Distributed Ground Station,” the clunky military name given to the part of the kill chain that analyzes intelligence from drone video imagery.

“Thank you,” she remembered the soldier said. “We always felt better when you guys had our backs. We were scared to go out unless we knew you were out there, watching our backs.”

That chat, with a soldier who had fought and suffered and had now had one too many beers, is one reason she never regretted what she did from video screens, never asked for a psychologist or a chaplain.

“You hear that from a guy who was there, and you know,” she said.

“You know that what you did was worthwhile.”