SJAFB air crews reflect on four-month tour
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 16, 2008 1:46 PM
For the first time in more than four months, Ryan Bone sees America.
He is in the back seat of an F-15E Strike Eagle, somewhere "just over the Atlantic."
"I welled up," he said.
It was an emotional sight, in part, because it marked the end of a long stint at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan -- an old Soviet construct nestled among Third World mud huts and opium fields.
But what made it a moment the Air Force captain says he would never forget were those he shared it with.
Members of the 4th Fighter Wing's 335th Fighter Squadron have been home for weeks now.
But memories from a war still raging in the desert are still fresh in their minds.
Kevin Currie is nearly out of fuel.
But just as the command pilot prepares to guide his Strike Eagle back to the tarmac at Bagram, something catches his eye.
"Just as I'm about to check out, the sun is setting ... about two or three miles away, we can actually see friendlies taking fire. Within a very short period of time, we have neutralized those forces and saved an entire platoon," the Air Force major said. "Now, we didn't have much time to hang around. We dropped the one weapon we had and headed home. But it was one of those times when you actually see someone shooting -- our guys taking fire."
Joe Howell is on the radio with a joint tactical air controller on the ground "somewhere in the west".
Allied forces are taking fire.
"At one point, the JTAC says, 'Hold on a second,'" Howell said. "He comes back and is like, 'They just shot an RPG over my head.'"
Steve Christensen would tell you chances to reflect on a job well done come few and far between at Bagram.
There is always another mission, he said.
But trips to the hospital located across that old Soviet runway served as poignant reminders of why each is such a critical part of the war in Afghanistan.
"Some of the guys in the hospital, they would ask us, 'Who flew this mission on this day?' When it was you, they would say, 'Thank you. You saved my life,'" Christensen said. "Just being face to face and seeing how much they appreciate what you do, I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything."
But responding to troops-in-contact calls, while a daily charge for air crews flying out of Bagram, is not the only part of the air power mission that gave Christensen and his fellow "Chiefs" a sense of satisfaction during their tour.
Currie remembers taking out an opium-producing compound used to make money for the Taliban -- an aspect of the Allied mission in Afghanistan that often goes unnoticed, he said.
"When we took out that compound, it not only stabilized the region, it has long-reaching effects back to the western world, back to America. It keeps those drugs off the streets," he said. "It wasn't the most exciting mission I ever did, but its impact was immediate."
Command pilot Lewis Collins did not even have to be in the skies to sense he was making a difference -- or that the stakes were high.
For the father of two, all it took was the sight of children playing soccer just beyond the base gate.
"Every time you saw them playing out there, they had soccer balls right outside the gate. They are in these fields we are told not to go into because of potential mines, and here they are playing soccer," the Air Force captain said. "It makes you realize, this is why we are over there. We are there to protect those kids, just as we are over there to protect our own families back home."
"It's such a different experience for anyone who lives in the West to see a Third World country," he said. "I mean, their homes are built of mud."
And if the conditions at Bagram were any indication of those outside the wire, those mud homes were likely covered in a chalky sand and reached 100 degrees or more on the hot days.
Those are the images members of the 335th carry with them on sorties they fly these days over Wayne County.
From the comforts of a free world, Currie can still see the Afghan children waving.
Howell can still hear the heavy breathing of a JTAC on the ground, the 20-something running through a field to escape insurgent fire.
Still, no memory shines brighter than their final departure from Bagram.
Howell recalls a "special moment" during that ride.
"There's a point between here and Bagram, when you cross Egypt and over the Mediterranean, you see the bright blue of the Mediterranean in contrast with the desert of Egypt," he said. "At that point, anywhere else you are going to divert is in the West. It's a nice feeling. It kind of gives you the warm fuzzies."
Lt. Col. James Jinnette agrees.
But for him, the moment was sad, too.
He knew this flight would mark the last time he would command the Chiefs from the skies.
So as each jet made its final approach, as their wheels hit the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base tarmac for the first time in a quarter-year, it was bittersweet for the now former-commander of the 335th.
But a little more sweet, he said.
"Looking back behind us that day, seeing 13 jets behind us and knowing that everyone was safe, that we were done with combat, it was the third biggest day of my life -- behind my marriage and the birth of my daughter," Jinnette said. "This deployment was truly one of the highlights of my life."
So the next time you see a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles descending over Wilber's, just remember that a little more than a month ago, those same crews might very well have been saving Allied lives in the desert.
If you see an airman with a "Chiefs" patch holding his child's hand a little tighter, keep those images of children playing soccer outside the Bagram wire in your thoughts.
The members of those air crews surely will.
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