04/14/06 — SJAFB airmen share stories from the sky

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SJAFB airmen share stories from the sky

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on April 14, 2006 1:49 PM

For airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, stationed halfway around the world in support of Operation Iraqi Enduring Freedom, it is the little things about home that they miss most.

Four members of the 4th Fighter Wing spoke by conference call to the News-Argus this morning, describing their lives at a makeshift desert air base and the job they do over the skies of Iraq.

The four men, unable to give their real names because of security concerns, went by their nicknames. J.J. and Face are F-15E Strike Eagle pilots. Pepe is a weapons systems officer. Deuce is an aircraft maintenance officer.

All said they missed their families and looked forward to coming home in a few months. Normal deployments for units from the base are for six months, and the four said they were "on the downside" of this tour of duty. All have been stationed in the Iraqi theater before.

"Let's just say this isn't our first rodeo," Face said.

Deuce said living for months in a desert environment has given them more appreciation of the simple things about home. They miss the greenery that adorns the Wayne County landscape, they said.

"The thing I used to take for granted was the beautiful dogwoods and azaleas that bloom this time of year," J.J. said. "We miss that especially now."

Pepe said he missed the simple joy of being able to drive his pickup truck around Goldsboro and Wayne County.

All agreed that the first thing they plan to do when they get home is take a long, hot shower. Regulations limit showers to three minutes, they said.

"That's the first thing, a 20-30 minute shower," Deuce said.

The airmen said the base at which they live is spartan but does have some amenities. Personnel who come and go often stay in a tent city inside the compound, but those who are stationed there for months get to stay in mobile trailers, complete with air-conditioning.

"We stay two to a room," Deuce said. "It's not too awful bad."

All four said the food at the chow hall is excellent.

"It ain't Wilber's," Deuce said, "but it's pretty good."

Airmen are allowed to make several calls a week home to speak to their families, but the calls are limited to 15 minutes. Those few minutes are precious, they emphasized, strengthening their resolve and reminding them of why they have taken on the responsibility they have.

For recreation, the airmen play volleyball or baseball or toss a Frisbee around. They do not leave the base often, but when they do, they said they have been warmly received by the people living nearby.

"It's always a good experience," Pepe said.

The chief mission of the 4th Fighter Wing is to provide air support for ground troops. Face said pilots and weapons systems officers usually fly a single sortie a day because of the long distances to be covered. They run into situations in which ground troops need help almost on a daily basis, he said.

"We're watching out for the bad guys and looking out for the good guys," Pepe said.

J.J. said the fighter pilots and the teams that keep them flying are proud to be part of the effort to bring peace to the region. Knowing that they are helping ground troops in direct contact with the enemy is what drives them to do their best on each flight, he said.

"One of the great things is being able to give the guys on the ground a sense of hope in the future," he said.

J.J. praised the work of the maintenance crews in keeping the Strike Eagles in good flying condition despite the desert conditions.

"This is the best maintenance team I've ever seen," he said. He added that the 4th Fighter Wing squadron "is as tight as any I've seen. We've got a great bunch of folks here now."

It was about 4:30 p.m. at the desert base when the four airmen spoke by phone. Each said he was headed in a different direction after the call ended, some to bed, some to breakfast, some just back to work. Activity at the base never slows, they said.

"The time of day means almost nothing here," said Pepe.