OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- With piercing blue eyes and unwavering confidence, a man walks into life’s arenas and envisions success. Whether exchanging blows in an octagonal ring or climbing snowy mountains to call in airstrikes, his visions of prosperous outcomes cancels out the deafening noises.
Being distracted can be the difference between life and death, or standing upright versus tumbling down. Knowing the severity of a miscalculated move, his passion and professionalism keeps him in the fight – one that parallels the worlds of MMA and being a U.S. Air Force TACP.
“Being in the ring and being a TACP are very similar,” said Staff Sgt. Mark Bunkley, 607th Air Support Operations Group tactical air control party (TACP). “The feeling I get going into the ring, is the same feeling I felt when I stepped out of my vehicle for the first time in Afghanistan and charged my weapon.”
Bunkley continued to explain the butterflies deep in his stomach from the uncertainty of what’s going to occur, which were flooded over by the trust he had in himself and the troops by his side.
“In combat, you don’t know if you’re going to hit an improvised explosive device or if you’re going to start taking contact,” Bunkley said. “You have to be on your toes the whole time. Same with in the ring, you don’t know what your opponent is planning. All you know is that they’re trying to defeat you.”
Whether Bunkley is observing his opponent from a higher terrain or is face to face with them, his goal is to be victorious. The amount of hours, days, months, and years of training can make or break him.
Life as a TACP
“As a TACP, you have to be able to multi-manage, which is something that doesn’t come naturally,” Bunkley said. “It’s not natural to talk to you, this guy over here and then three different people on the radio. You have to train a lot to obtain the ability to multi-manage in these situations. You have to be able to take information given and act in a quick manner that’ll make sense to get effects on the battlefield.”
His mission is to supply multilateral communication between aircraft and ground troops in the battlespace. He’ll either give the “cleared hot” order to aircraft for close air support or receive a bigger picture of the battlefield from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
“The challenges of being a TACP drew me to the career field,” Bunkley said. “I was 18 years old going through the schoolhouse and all I wanted was to do something that would be meaningful and make a big impact on my life and others.”
Going into the initial stage of TACP training, Bunkley doubted whether he would make it through to graduation. He knew in the back of his mind there was an incredibly high attrition rate for special warfare Airmen.
Now after nine years of service, Bunkley has become extremely well versed in his job. He has deployed and has had the opportunity to be an instructor in the special warfare pipeline.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘I can’t believe I get paid for this,’” Bunkley said. “We get to call in airstrikes, shoot guns, go skydiving and experience many different combat courses. But with all that comes the sucky moments, like hiking up a snowy mountain to get a good observation point. You can stay in the field for days at a time in extreme heat or cold; it can be wet or dry. Through the good or the suck, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Bunkley’s two worlds meet
In January 2020, the Las Vegas native was one of nine U.S. Air Force special warfare and combat support Airmen to receive an opportunity to visit the Ultimate Fighting Championship Training Center. During this visit he was able to meet and train with some of the top UFC fighters.
“It was totally awesome to get the opportunity to go out to the UFC Training Center and train with Dustin Poirier, Forest Griffin and Stephen Thompson,” Bunkley said. “We were able to hear their stories of past fights, how they came up and some of their challenges they’ve faced.”
The goal from this opportunity was for the U.S. Air Force Recruiting Service to strengthen their partnership with the UFC, which provided the Airmen and fighters a look into each other's worlds.
“I’m definitely not able to be a top UFC fighter and be a TACP at the same time.” Bunkley said. “Being a MMA fighter is a full-time deal. My plan is to continue fighting amateur and get my experience up and hopefully fight at the pro level in the future.”
Bunkley’s experience in the ring includes three amateur MMA fights, more than 80 jiu jitsu competitions and a couple of Army combative matches.
“I grew up wrestling and didn’t get into MMA until my deployment to Africa,” Bunkley said. “I had a group of friends who trained a few times a week and started to join them. I got addicted to it. I started training once a week, then twice a week and later found myself training almost every day.”
“Took my first fight on a seven hour notice”
“I was back home and a buddy of mine, who helps promote amateur and pro-level fights, noticed me competing in jiu jitsu,” Bunkley said. “He called me and said, ‘Hey man, I know you do jiu jitsu but do you want to fight in the cage tonight.’”
Bunkley surprised and confused, ended up agreeing to the fight.
“I just went for it,” Bunkley said. “I took my first fight on a seven hour notice in Las Vegas on the strip.”
At this point in Bunkley’s experience, he had primarily done ground combatives and only two or three sessions of striking.
“The whole feeling of having my music played while walking up has no comparison,” Bunkley said. “The adrenaline and excitement overcomes you before you start throwing fists. And it’s all very real. These dudes are straight up trying to knock your head off.”
As soon as the bell rang, Bunkley’s nervous feeling faded away. His focus was on how he could defeat his opponent.
“Very quickly, I realized this guy’s striking was a lot better than mine,” Bunkley said. “I was getting hit over and over, but I just kept watching him looking for my edge. When I got the chance, I took him to the mat. It was over. I knew that’s where I had him. From there, every round I took him down.”
The years of high school wrestling and jiu jitsu payed off for Bunkley in this match, which came down to the very end.
“I played my strength,” Bunkley said. “I was tactical about the fight and it all came down to the judge’s decision. Standing there felt like forever for them to announce the winner. And with a unanimous decision, they raised my arm in victory.”