A Christmas card from Afghanistan
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 24, 2007 1:59 PM
Robert Allison is the name that has been missing from a scorecard inside a Goldsboro bowling alley for months now.
Phillip Butche is the cheer you won’t hear on Sunday when friends gather to watch a football game.
Rodney Stevens is the empty chair next to the tree when a mother plays Santa for four children.
But each is also an airman, a “Rocketeer.”
Jonathan Bess admits Afghanistan is “actually pretty beautiful,” but said the snowy mountaintops near Bagram Air Base still can’t replace his “nice big bed at home” in his mind.
Alex DeFazio is enjoying the “camping trip” that he calls this deployment, but says he misses his family — and the B-Coursers back at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base — “terribly.”
Members of the 4th Fighter Wing’s 336th Fighter and Aircraft Maintenance squadrons each have something they can’t wait to get home for.
Still, they admit that Thanksgiving and Christmas in Afghanistan are not all that bad when you are surrounded by comrades in arms.
After all, these “brothers” share a bond none would ever trade.
“The Rockets are a family,” said Lt. Col. Eugene McFeely, commander of the 336th Fighter Squadron. “We’re just a band of brothers going through this journey together.”
And it has been a journey, more than three months on a Russian-built base in the desert.
But each airman will tell you that while deployment means a fair share of ups and downs, enduring them together has been an honor.
There are the Sundays a group of guys gathers around the television after midnight to watch “some NFL team,” “any team” — knowing the Armed Forces Network won’t likely be showing their hometown favorites, but coming together anyway.
There is missing family members at any given moment and knowing e-mails and phone calls can’t come spontaneously because of the time difference — so you talk to one of your buddies in the squadron about happenings back home.
F-15E Strike Eagles, a will to win and each other are the only gifts these Rocketeers are counting this Christmas.
But until their return early next year, that seems to be quite enough.
After all, right this minute, a pair of 336th flight crews are somewhere over Afghanistan, providing close-air support for Allied forces below.
And the pride that comes with that mission overwhelms the sad thoughts and lonely nights.
“We do what we do for many reasons,” McFeely said. “Right now, what we’re doing is for the guys on the ground. It makes you proud to be an American.”
It’s easier to focus on that mission when you know the families back home are taking care of each other — and themselves — he added.
“It’s all about the family,” he said. “My wife is really holding it down.”
The morning they went away
It was a chilly, windy September morning when a dozen F-15Es sat on the Seymour Johnson tarmac facing a crowd of 100-plus.
The flight crews said they can still see the American flags waving.
It was a sendoff the likes of which most said they had never seen.
“In 17 years, I have never seen a sendoff like the one (the 335th Fighter Squadron “Chiefs”) gave us that night,” one said. “The pilots’ flashes were going off, guys were cheering. I felt like a rockstar going out to that.”
And then, one by one, the Strike Eagles took flight — and large silver jets became blinking red dots fading away into the horizon.
Learning from the mission
Stevens says he was naive before he landed in Afghanistan.
“I was very undereducated about what was going on over here,” he said.
But watching the mission unfold changed all that.
First you see the living conditions — mud huts and a terrain not suitable for growing anything.
Then, waves and smiles from “outside the wire” catch your attention.
“Knowing the positive impacts we’re providing to the Afghan nationals has been eye-opening to me,” he said. “I will make sure to be a good steward of what is going on over here when I get back.”
“The locals outside the base, they really appreciate what we have done here,” he said. “So there’s a great sense of pride in what we’re doing.”
Until they come home
You get the sense that each of the airmen in those squadrons knows just how much he or she is needed in a country on the mend.
So for the remaining month-plus of their deployment, they will fight through the 12-hour shifts and the personal sacrifices to see through what some call “noble work.”
And they will complete each mission as they have since day one — together.
Brothers always do, DeFazio said.
“It’s terrible to be away from my family, but these are my brothers in arms,” he said. “I would die for every one of them.”
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