SUMTER - After years of staying home while wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16 fighter squadrons at Shaw Air Force Base are getting back into the fight.
Two of the Sumter base's three squadrons are preparing to deploy airmen and jets to Iraq starting in January. Shaw's other squadron, the 79th, has been at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan since October.
The surge in deployments contrasts sharply with a 5 1/2-year span between the spring of 2003 and fall 2008 when Shaw's fighters remained stateside.
During that time, Shaw's airmen were not idle, said Col. Ken Craib, deputy director of operations for the Air Forces Central Command, headquartered here.
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"I think it's important to understand that the 20th Fighter Wing has been fighting the war from here," Craib said Tuesday.
Instead of going to the Middle East, Shaw's airmen have participated in Operation Noble Eagle, patrolling U.S. skies to prevent someone from launching an airborne strike similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Craib said.
"It is something that we don't see, especially here locally," Craib said, adding that other fighter bases will be picking up homeland patrol missions. "You see airplanes taking off all the time. What they are doing, whether they are training missions or operational missions, is transparent to you."
Between Desert Storm - the first Iraq war in 1991 - and the start of the second Iraq war in March 2003, Shaw routinely rotated squadrons to the Persian Gulf region to patrol no-fly zones over Iraq.
One Shaw squadron, the 77th, fought in the opening "shock-and-awe" weeks of the second Iraq war and returned home in May 2003.
But it wasn't until October 2008 when another Shaw squadron, the 55th, deployed with about 300 airmen for 120 days in Iraq.
Now, in succession, Shaw airmen are hitting the road.
The 79th left in October and is due back in January. That will be about the same time the 77th squadron goes to Iraq. Then Shaw's 55th Fighter squadron will leave in April about when the 77th starts packing its bags.
Shaw is not the only S.C. base preparing to send airmen overseas. The 169th Fighter Wing, headquartered about 20 miles west of here at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, expects to send planes and airmen to Iraq in the spring.
The type of mission the Shaw fighters are being called on to perform is much different than what the 77th flew in 2003.
Instead of knocking out Iraqi air defenses and destroying missile and antiaircraft artillery sites, pilots will be patrolling roads from above, tracking vehicles, looking out for bombs and providing close-air support for ground troops.
"We spend 90 percent of the time looking at roads," said Lt. Col. Doug DeMaio, commander of the 77th. "It's kind of like walking the beat as a cop."
Capt. Lee Bryant, of Lynchburg, Va., recalled an incident when patrolling the beat paid off.
At the time, Bryant was deployed with the 77th back in 2008. While patrolling a road, he spotted some men below "who weren't acting like (they) should.
"They were in the middle of the road," digging a hole for a bomb, Bryant said. "They were not building sand castles."
Bryant ended that excavation effort with a bomb.
While the fighter pilot's job these days might not be as glamorous as tangling with enemy pilots in dogfights or dodging missiles, Bryant said, it's just as rewarding.
"You get a good sense of accomplishment and a good sense of providing to the overall effort," Bryant said.
Patrolling the roads is another part of the fighter pilot's job description, added DeMaio, of Mendham, N.J.
"We've got to be ready to do anything," he said.