08/31/09 — Chiefs fly to join Afghanistan fight

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Chiefs fly to join Afghanistan fight

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 31, 2009 1:46 PM

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4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly, right, showed up at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line Sunday to motivate 300-plus members of the 335th Fighter Squadron one final time before they boarded a DC-10 bound for Afghanistan -- and to shake each one of their hands.

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335th Fighter Squadron members head for a transport plane Sunday.

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Senior Airman Shaun Thomas spends a few moments alone shortly before deploying.

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Military Affairs Commission chairman Dr. Mike Gooden brought 10 cases of eastern North Carolina peanuts for deployed airmen to eat on the flight. But he and former MAC chairman Henry Smith also came with a pledge: That the Wayne County community will watch over the families left behind.

There were no long embraces between husbands and wives along the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line Sunday afternoon -- no children running in for one last hug before their mothers and fathers left for war.

For the more than 300 members of the 335th Fighter Squadron who reported to the installation to board a DC-10 bound for Afghanistan, those goodbyes had likely unfolded long before.

But two men were waiting at the foot of the stairs below the belly of the aircraft to give the Chiefs one final sendoff.

And many long faces cracked smiles when 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly and Vice Commander Col. Patrick Doherty extended a hand and a "Go get 'em."

Airmen from the 335th began a four- to five-month tour Sunday, as they are set to replace their sister squadron, the 336th Rocketeers, at Bagram Airfield.

Their charge: To provide 24/7 air support to Coalition forces on the ground -- responding to troops-in-contact calls, escorting convoys, executing shows of force and, when necessary, dropping ordnance on enemy targets.

But for Capt. Prichard Keely, one of the F-15E aviators who will meet his aircraft in the desert, the mission is about much more.

"The bottom line is we are trying to stabilize Afghanistan," he said. "For the youngest little girl ... and the oldest man."

It's a noble cause, Keely added, one he feels honored to support.

But it's always hard to leave loved ones behind.

"We're all prepared, but the training ... doesn't really prepare you for leaving your family," he said.

335th Commander Lt. Col. Lance Bunch had similar feelings about boarding that plane.

"It's a challenging day," he said. "They are ready to go ... but they are also emotionally torn."

The Chiefs have been preparing for this deployment for months -- attending flying exercises at bases across the country, training with Marines and following the action unfolding in theater.

"We've kind of been keeping tabs on how the air war is evolving," Bunch said.

But the impact of what they do in the next few months might not be felt for years, Kelly said.

"You won't feel it while you're there," said the wing commander, who came to Seymour Johnson this time last year straight from Bagram. "You'll probably comprehend it when you're my age."

What they will feel while in Afghanistan, though, is something base officials said will improve their performance: A sense of security that comes with knowing those back in Wayne County are behind them -- and their families.

That feeling was reinforced Sunday when local Military Affairs Commission chairman Dr. Mike Gooden and former chairman Henry Smith showed up to wish them well.

"What can I say? These guys are an important part of our community. They are our neighbors and our friends. Their kids go to school with our kids," Gooden said. "So we're just looking forward to seeing them when they get back home."

Smith agreed.

"I'm here because I love it," he said. "What these guys do is just awesome."

Bunch said the support means a great deal to members of his squadron.

"Really, (what we want to say) is, 'Thanks.' A few weeks ago ... we were flying until 3 in the morning. We kept everybody up. But we needed that training," he said. "So we need to say, 'Thank you,' and 'Keep up that outstanding support.'"

Because it's that support, Keely said, that will keep him and his comrades going for the next four months.

"It's a lot easier to go do something when you know someone believes in you," he said.