04/29/09 — Off to battle: 336th Rocketeers to Afghanistan

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Off to battle: 336th Rocketeers to Afghanistan

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 29, 2009 1:46 PM


336th Fighter Squadron 2nd Lt. Adam Clift kisses his girlfriend, Jessica Goodall, before leaving for war.

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Tech. Sgt. Linda Jo Sampson, left, sends her husband, Master Sgt. Jason Sampson, through his deployment line early this morning as hundreds of other 4th Fighter Wing airmen prepare for their deployment as well.

Long before sunrise, tears were falling along the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line.

Members of the 4th Fighter Wing's 336th Fighter Squadron were heading to war -- to the Russian-built airfield at Bagram, Afghanistan.

For close to an hour, family members, military supporters and airmen, saluted each F-15E Strike Eagle air crew as it taxied down the runway.

Tonya Jaime was one of the faces in that crowd -- her husband, Thomas, in one of the cockpits slow-rolling by.

An hour earlier, she and others were lined up at the foot of the 336th headquarters' back porch.

They cheered when, two by two, airmen wearing flight suits emerged from a doorway and started toward the aircraft parked a few hundred yards away.

Jaime took a few moments longer than his comrades.

He had to lean in for one more kiss from the woman he was leaving behind.

"Every kiss with him is like the first," Mrs. Jaime said. "He really is my dream."

Several hundred airmen from the 336th and its support squadrons began four-month tours early this morning as friends and loved ones looked on.

4th Fighter Wing Comman-der Col. Mark Kelly knows what they are up against.

Less than a year ago, he was flying missions out of Bagram.

"As the weather starts warming up over there it gets busy. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda who have roosted for the winter, they are coming out of their homes and huts and they have no good intentions," Kelly said. "All those Marines and soldiers (on the ground in Afghanistan) will come home eventually, and because of how well these airplanes run ... our goal is to bring every single one of them home the right way.

"Sometimes, our nation has to bring its soldiers and Marines home to Dover (Air Force Base) in a flag-draped coffin," he added. "Our goal is to make that number as small as humanly possible. It's a big deal. This is as big as it gets."

To help achieve that goal, 4th Strike Eagles will maintain a constant presence in the skies over Afghanistan -- escorting convoys, responding to troops-in-contact calls with shows of force, and, when necessary, eliminating enemy threats on the ground.

"When you look at the mission over there, the close-air-support mission, there is nobody that closes with an enemy and kills an enemy better than our soldiers and Marines. But every now and then, they need some help," Kelly said. "Sometimes, you need somebody to get there now and nobody can get there as fast as we can. Nobody can stay on the fight as long as we can. Nobody can bring the level of diversity of ordnance that we can. It really is a one-of-a-kind capability we bring to the fight.

"(Our airmen) know that these soldiers are neighbors from Fayettville and they know these Marines are neighbors from Camp Lejeune," he added. "So there's a fairly big North Carolina fight that's going to happen over there and they are ready to go."

And they are ready to follow the lead of their new commander -- a man who will likely be waiting to greet them with a familiar hand extended when they arrive at Bagram.

After all, 455th Expedit-ionary Wing Commander Col. Steve Kwast knows the 336th well.

From the cockpit of a Seymour Johnson F-15E, he fought alongside members of the unit during Operation Desert Storm.

And he served as 4th Fighter Wing commander until last year when he was replaced by Kelly.

"(When I was commander of the 4th), I got to command and lead them as they prepared to go. Now I get to prepare and lead them from the tip of the spear," Kwast said earlier this month. "My mission, then, was to prepare them for war. Now I get to lead them in (it)."

And instead of hearing about their success and praying for their safe return, he gets to be a part of it.

"I'll get to help shepherd them through," he said. "From the time they arrive to the time they come back home."

Tech. Sgt. Linda Sampson is confident that her husband, Jason, will make it home safely.

She made it through her own tour at Bagram two years ago.

So she didn't get emotional went he passed through the deployment line she was monitoring this morning.

"It's very interesting. There is just that line you don't deviate from. You have your job you have to do," she said. "But there's always going to be that sense of worry. It still is a war zone."