336th's mission: Taking care of those fighting below
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 2, 2009 1:46 PM
336th Capt. Steve Baker, left, and Lt. Col. Jay Hallenbeck climb into their F-15E Strike Eagle at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- As members of the 336th Fighter Squadron make their way toward the airfield at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, a sign on the last door they pass through tells them all they need to know.
"The mission is an 18-year-old with a rifle," it reads. "All else is support."
Capt. Steve Baker is one of many aircrew members now guided by those words.
They have stuck with him since the first time he heard a frantic cry for help come over the radio in the cockpit of his F-15E Strike Eagle.
"Your heart speeds up. The adrenaline starts flowing," he said. "But as soon as you check in and hear the voice on the ground -- which is very elevated, obviously -- and you can hear a lot of action in the background ... you have to be the calm voice in the sky. You are not in his shoes. You are there to help get him out of there."
Capt. David Kopp agrees.
"You know, once you get called out to some place to help guys out, your heart gets pumping, but it's amazing how we practice these things and you revert back to them," he said. "If you stay focused on that mission and your training, things just sort of fall into place and you're able to protect those guys."
Keeping watch over Coalition forces currently scattered across Afghanistan is the daily charge for 336th aircrews.
And they are always in the skies -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- ensuring that whenever those troops come under fire, an armed guardian is en route to clear the threat.
Kopp remembers a particular scene that unfolded several weeks ago.
"We went to an area where, basically, the whole place was just lit up. It was grasslands and the whole area was lit up from the tracer fires," he said. "When we got there, we got our eyes on the enemy running away. They probably broke contact because they heard us coming. We're pretty loud, so they can hear us when we start getting close.
"Just talking to the guys after who were getting fired upon, they told us how very grateful they were that we showed up. They were hundreds of miles away from (Bagram) and without us, they were probably in trouble."
Baker has flown into similar circumstances since the Rocketeers began their stint in the desert.
"We responded to a situation where some troops on the ground were taking fire. We had some that were wounded -- out in the middle of Afghanistan -- and you could tell they were pretty scared," he said. "But then we showed up and, immediately, the guys said, 'We can here you. Thank goodness.' As soon as you get overhead, it's like a warm blanket to those guys. We might not be on the ground -- in the dirt, dust and heat -- but we're with them. And we are going to do everything the Strike Eagle is capable of doing to prevent those guys from getting into more serious trouble."
That attitude and commitment inspires 336th Commander Lt. Col. Neil Allen.
Watching young aviators reach that understanding so early in their first deployment is one of the perks of leading a fighter squadron, he said.
"They get it," he said. "And when we see our youngsters, our new generation, succeed, it's almost as proud a moment as when you see your own kids succeed. No kidding."
But the pilots and weapon systems officers under his command are not the only young men and women who have made him proud since they left Seymour Johnson Air Force Base a few months ago.
The maintainers who keep the 4th Fighter Wing's Strike Eagle fleet fit to fly also have left him awestruck.
"They are doing 10- to 12-hour shifts. A lot of them are young. A lot of them are married. A lot of them haven't been away from home. They are waking up early, getting their chow and getting to work. It's hot. It's windy. It's not a kind environment. And they are working on jets that are going on 20 to 25 years old now," Allen said. "Then out come the pilot and the WSO. They salute them, take them off ... and four or five hours later ... those kids are left out there with those jets again going, 'What just happened?'
"So, here is what I think about them. I think they are absolute heroes. Day in and day out they come in and allow that to happen. And not only do they roll with it, they love it. They relish in it. They take so much pride in that airplane flying and coming home with no problems. There is almost nothing better than taxiing by those guys, watching them hooting and hollering it up. They are loving life and it helps us get motivated to fly. They are incredible."
Senior Airman Lashonda Robinson is one of them.
She left her 4-year-old daughter, Aaniyah, behind for a tour in the desert, but still finds time to smile when she isn't loading weapons onto a Strike Eagle before takeoff.
"Before now, (the maintainers), we just looked at it as that's our job. We didn't look at it as, 'The F-15E is an amazing aircraft,'" she said. "But when you come over here and you see it take off and hear the stories about how another Army guy was saved because of what we did, it makes you feel really good."
Allen made sure to share one such story with more than 100 members of the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit Wednesday.
And before he closed his remarks, he made sure to thank them for their sacrifice.
"I think we forget sometimes and take for granted that we make a difference," Ms. Robinson said. "So when we hear stuff like that, we know that we're here for a reason. (The aircrews) appreciate us, and we know it."
The aircrews have been reminded of just how much they are appreciated, too.
For Baker, it was the last thing he heard on the radio after that firefight.
"At the end of it they were very elated. They said, 'Thank you so much. You guys did a great job. The enemy fire has ceased. Because of you, we are all going to make it home tonight,'" he said. "When you hear something like that over the radio, you know, you feel pretty good. You're chest gets a little bit bigger."
And Kopp got a boost when those he has saved call and send e-mails.
"Knowing that we helped out, it's awesome," he said. "Finding out that you helped these guys get back home is definitely rewarding. There's not a much better feeling than that."
The words on that door are simple enough: "The mission is an 18-year-old with a rifle. All else is support."
But for each member of the self-described "World Famous Rocketeers" -- the flyers and maintainers alike -- they mean everything.
"I live inside the wire. I fly 20,000 feet above the ground. So it's not about what I do. It's about what those guys on the ground are going through," Baker said. "Because as technologically advanced as my aircraft is, my personal opinion is that guy on the ground is the one who is going to make the difference in Afghanistan."
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