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A-10 weaponry, training, teamwork paying off in OEF

An A-10 from the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, for a recent mission. (Photo by Dutch Navy Sgt. Ruud Mol)

An A-10 from the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, for a recent mission. (Photo by Dutch Navy Sgt. Ruud Mol)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- More bad news for the Taliban: A-10 Thunderbolts are again looking down on them. The aircraft, crews and maintainers - world-renowned for their keen ability to conduct close air support - deployed to Bagram from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in early April.

Their unit, at home station the 354th Fighter Squadron, is in Afghanistan to provide the same firepower unleashed in previous deployments since the Operation Enduring Freedom begin nearly six years ago.

As coalition and NATO forces work to close the final chapter in ridding Afghanistan of the extremists, A-10 firepower is a vital tool in making the country safe for reconstruction and development.

"They brought us back because of our 30-millimeter capability. It's an air-to-ground gun," said 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Kevin Anderson. "There are other aircraft out there that perform close air support, but our weaponry makes us particularly effective."

The 30 mm Gatling gun that fronts the A-10's nose provides longer range, greater accuaracy, and comes with four to five times more rounds than other weapons systems, the commander explained.

"It provides a tighter grouping," Colonel Anderson said. "I could shoot it from a mile or two away and still hit a very small footprint." The A-10s can also perform combat search and rescue and forward air control functions, if necessary.

"We're pretty efficient, we can stay (in the battlespace) longer, and we carry a lot of different weapons," Colonel Anderson added.

One of the men charged with bringing those weapons to bear against enemy fighters is Capt. Douglas Witmer. The Thunderbolt pilot is engaged in his first combat deployment. He said flying close air support in Afghanistan is a combination of deep fulfillment and responsibility.

"It's an incredible feeling supporting the guys on the ground, and it's a lot of repsonsibility with as many friendly forces as we have out there. The last thing an A-10 or any CAS pilot wants to do is harm friendly forces - this is something we've been taught from the earliest stages of training," Captain Witmer said.

Training has made the introduction to combat smoother for Captain Witmer, who credited the training programs and experienced team at D-M for his quick adjustment.

"As a young guy, I had a little apprehension about flying my first combat sorties," Captain Witmer said. "But in the bulk of it all, we've been prepared so well that flying here doesn't feel too much different than at home."

One enjoyable new experience has been the opportunity to work with and support international forces, Captain Witmer said.

"We don't get to do a lot of that back home. It's really great to check in with the (air controller) on the ground and be talking to a British guy or communicating with Dutch F-16s, or French forces," the captain said.

Before joining the multinational forces in defeating the Taliban, Captain Witmer and nearly 200 colleagues set up shop at Bagram in a matter of days. Operational flying begin within 48 hours of the A-10s arriving in Afghanistan.

According to Colonel Anderson, the only challenges have been those associated with any deployment, like getting the troops accustomed to 24-hour operations.

"We really haven't had a lot of difficulty," the commander said. "We arrived and were flying a full schedule within two days and really haven't missed a beat since."

The perspective is the same from the squadron's maintainers, according to Master Sgt. Paul Delano, the lead production superintendent for the 455 Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron.

"Within 48 hours, we flew our first effective combat sortie and we met the adversary, and without going into too much detail, they know we're here," Sergeant Delano said.

"Whenever you go somewhere, you have to adapt to your surroundings, get comfortable with one another and bond," Sergeant Delano said. "You realize you don't have the family support within arm's reach, so we've become brothers in arms."

Generating multiple sorties each day to support operations on the ground means a complex scheme of operational and maintenance activity must mesh to launch fully-mission capable aircraft on time, Sergeant Delano explained.

"Right now we're hitting out stride, coming together as a team, and we just seem to be hitting everything right on cue," the master sergeant said.

Along with Captain Witmer, Delano credited the training team back on Davis-Monthan, saying their experience base from senior NCOs and seasoned trainers is missed.

"Here, we have to rely on each other for that experience base," Sergeant Delano said.

A-10 crew chief and first-time deployer Airman 1st Class Robert McDonough said training from back home is paying off in the way he's responsded to combat operations.

"It feels awesome, and you know you are actually doing you job, and all the training back home is paying off. I feel like I'm changing the world," Airman McDonough said. "In Arizona, we are always training for chemical warfare all the time, and with the Arizona weather, it really got us ready for this."

The airman said that generating aircraft to fly in Tucson was not much different than in Afghanistan, though the humidity and altitude are both higher here, and the heat and long hours have been the most challenging factors so far. Still, he's greatful for the experience and the chance to make a difference.

"I was happy to find out that the Afghan people here are thankful that we're here, and I'm glad that we're helping them," Airman McDonough said.

While the enemy may only see the business end of the 30 mm gun, Sergeant Delano said there's there a lot of hard work, passion and pride behind putting that gun over the battle.

"To be put in a position where (operations are) real and somebody's life depends on every action that we take, all of our experience, drive and motivation and our pride in our fleet ... to be able to put that plane perfectly combat-capable in the air and put bombs on target and save our troops' lives on the ground and push the enemy further into their holes - it's beyond words. We're elated. This is what we are here for. This is what we do. We're proud, simply put."

While the men and women supporting the 354th EFS are feeling elated to bring the Thunderbolt to the battlefields of Afghanistan, the enemy must be feeling anything but.