Shaw airmen settle in Afghanistan

Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, airmen from Shaw Air Force Base settled into a routine.

Work, go to the gym, read e-mails, grab a bite to eat, check online class work, sleep and then more work.

"Life is busy, and it's getting busier," said Capt. Jeffrey Shulman of Columbia. "The days vary, but overall it's been very productive and very rewarding."

Shulman is among 200 airmen of the 79th Fighter Squadron that deployed in October to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

The F-16 unit from Shaw, which includes pilots, administrative staffers, mechanics and technicians, is about halfway through a four-month tour.

Living in an austere environment - where a trip to the bathroom means hiking several yards in the snow through a maze of tents and plywood huts - seems to have a positive effect on the airmen.

"There's pretty much a family environment here that is really nice," said Staff Sgt. Jamie Dixon of Sumter. "Everyone looks out for each other, and that's pretty good to have."

Bagram, too, is huge compared to Shaw. More than 20,000 U.S. service members are at Bagram, compared with about 6,000 based at Shaw.

The airmen are housed in plywood huts, usually eight people to a building. In some of the huts, airmen have built plywood partitions for a little privacy.

While it might not be home, the accommodations are far better than those of ground troops camped at small bases in the mountains, Shulman said.

Until recently, the prospect of a Shaw squadron stationed at Bagram seemed remote.

That's because the runway, originally built by the Soviets when they occupied the country in the 1980s, had been in poor condition. Other planes and helicopters operating at Bagram kicked up rocks and debris that could be sucked into the F-16's air intake under the fuselage, rendering a fatal blow to the engine.

But since 2007, the U.S. military has poured millions of dollars into the base for an assortment of projects, including a new runway and ramp. The rock problem is under control, officials said.

The 79th is only the second F-16 squadron to deploy at Bagram. The first was from Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

The one thing about Afghanistan that has impressed the pilots most is the mountainous terrain, where peaks soar higher than 25,000 feet high.

When referring to the terrain, pilots use the term "standard mountains," said Lt. Col. Ken Ekman, the squadron commander.

"The mountains are so commonplace, they're so big and overwhelming that you just take them for granted," said Ekman, of Panama City, Fla.

Although the squadron trained over mountain ranges in the western United States, the vistas from a F-16 flying over Afghanistan are awe-inspiring, the pilots said.

"They're gorgeous, and they're huge," Shulman said.

For pilots, most missions last four to six hours, much longer than the 60- to 90-minute training flights pilots usually fly out of Shaw.

"You get used to it pretty quick," said Capt. Dave Snodgrass, of Fort Worth, Texas.

The pilots' primary job is to provide close-air support for U.S. and coalition troops on the ground. Sometimes, that job calls for dropping a bomb on enemy positions or just flying overhead, making enough noise to scare off attackers.

The pilots also use the planes' electronic gear to look for bombs that might be planted along a convoy route.

Flying goes on day and night, and the Shaw airmen have pulled a variety of missions.

"Each time, it's different and that's what keeps it interesting," said Capt. David Finkel, of Los Angeles, who earned college money flying radio station reporters over freeways and towing ad banners along California beaches.

While most missions are aimed at supporting ground troops, on Nov. 19 Shaw airmen were called on to patrol the skies over the Afghan capital of Kabul during President Hamid Karzai's inauguration.

The unit, though, is used to such missions, Ekman said, noting that Shaw fighters have routinely patrolled U.S. skies since the 9/11 attacks. That includes flying over major sporting events and even space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The toughest part of the pilot's job is dealing with sudden tempo changes.

A pilot can fly for hours and then be called on at a moment's notice to zoom in and provide armed support for troops engaged in a ground battle.

"Things can be calm, cool on the ground for the soldier, and then his day can go really bad," Ekman said.

Despite being thousands of miles from home, the airmen say they're getting plenty of support from families and the Sumter community.

"The care packages are nice to receive," said Dixon, who's an administrative aide. "We even get cards from local schools."

Added Finkel: "Keep us in your thoughts. That's good enough for me knowing people back home are thinking about us."

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