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After first week of war, airmen charged, ready

SAN ANTONIO -- With the first week of Operation Iraq Freedom successfully waged, 40,000 airmen spread across 30 locations stand poised for the long and difficult road ahead.

But to airmen such as Senior Airman Jennifer Raney, the duration of the journey is secondary to dispelling the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"I'm just very proud to be here, and in my small way to fight for freedom," said Raney, a aerospace ground equipment maintainer assigned to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. She spoke in a telephone interview from her deployed location. "I'm very proud to do my part, every day, no matter how long it takes."

Although she plays only a small role in the nonstop air war, Raney said, the Whittier, N.C., native feels deep pride belonging to such a massive undertaking -- more than 4,800 sorties alone during the first five days of the operation.

The war effort will not be quick or easy, according to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President George W. Bush also warned against expectations of an easy victory. During a March 26 visit to U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., the president reminded Americans "this war is far from over" but "we will stay on the path, mile by mile, all the way to Baghdad and all the way to victory. ... Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom."

The war could be long, but it got off to a fast start. Coalition "shock air forces" opened the air campaign with more than 2,000 sorties on the first night, and have averaged about 1,000 per night since, according to officials.

For the first time in combat, precision-guided munitions were used exclusively to minimize collateral damage while targeting a large number of military sites. In comparison, less than 10 percent of the munitions used during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 were precision-guided.

Aircraft sorties originated from as far away as Whiteman AFB, Mo., the Indian Ocean and England, plus being flown from 30 locations throughout U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility and five Navy aircraft carriers. B-2 Spirits flew the longest missions, lasting approximately 34 hours.

Tanker pilots such as Capt. Richard Peterson at the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing provided the legs for aircraft to reach the fight. The KC-135 Stratotanker pilot said his life has been a nonstop series of "fly, crew rest and time to go again." The reservist from Tinker AFB, Okla., said missions routinely stretched from seven to nine hours supporting bombers, fighters and surveillance aircraft hungry for fuel.

The pace is long and hard, but pilots prefer staying busy, said Peterson, who flew the A-10 Thunderbolt II during Operation Allied Force in 1994.

"We don't want to be sitting around," Peterson said of his fellow Reserve pilots who normally fly for commercial airlines. "As a whole we're very excited. Everybody is pretty fired up and glad to be doing what we're doing."

Another critical player who keeps aircraft flying is Airman 1st Class Joshua Brown, a computer systems operator at the 321st AEW who provides computer access for the wing. "No comm, no bomb" is the motto communications troops like to quote.

The 20-year-old Erie, Pa., native was in junior high school during the 1991 Gulf War. He kept up with daily events because his uncle was fighting with the Army. He said he knew then he wanted to be a part of the military. Brown was to report for basic training on Sept. 11, 2001. Because of the terrorist attacks, basic training was put on hold for a week.

Now Brown's life is somewhat on hold as he puts in nonstop 12-hour days, seven days a week. But he is not complaining. Brown said he has learned more in one month downrange than in a year at Minot AFB, N.D.

"I'm proud to be over here and defending our nation," Capt. Chadd Kobielush of the 401st AEW said. "It's rewarding helping the people of Iraq as a pilot refueling coalition aircraft.

But he also said he knows what he is doing extends beyond the boundaries of Iraq.

"It motivates you more when you feel like you're helping out the folks back home. As long as we can neutralize Saddam Hussein, that's a good blow to the enemies of America," said Kobielush, who is deployed from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.

As a boom operator for the 401st AEW, Staff Sgt. Joel Jones said he also feels the pride of being part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Jones, whose dad was also a boom operator, said the hardest part is being away from his family, but he said he knows he is there for the right cause -- "to free Iraq."

Raney agrees.

"Now, it feels like we came here to get justice for the lives we lost Sept. 11. Every day at home, this is what we go to work for. This is ultimately why we're in the military," she said.

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