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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The 14th Fighter Squadron will tackle its second Iraq deployment in less than two years with the hindsight of experience.

About half the pilots deploying with the squadron in September have already earned their combat wings, either with the 14th the first time or with another Air Force F-16 fighter squadron downrange.

They’re using that edge to maximize training during the countdown to Iraq.

"The way we trained for it last time was pretty much spot-on, but now we have the stories to back it up, the there-I-was kind of experience," said Capt. Brandon McBrayer, 31, a fighter pilot from Hamilton, Mo.

The battle-savvy fliers are guiding the squadron’s newest members, many of whom are brand new to the F-16 and fresh out of fighter pilot basic training, according to Capt. Tony Marek, 31, a veteran of two Iraq deployments.

His most important piece of advice: "Know your jet, your systems, and your bombs."

Close air support — providing another set of eyes, a presence and sometimes munitions to assist coalition ground forces — is dynamic in nature, Marek said.

"You’ll have a couple hours of calm, followed by 14 minutes of chaos," he said.

If operating the F-16 is second nature, "you’ll make the right decision when it counts."

McBrayer does his best to answer questions from new pilots.

Some want to know what it’s like to drop a live bomb. The finer points of living in a combat environment also weigh on some minds: "What’s the chow like?"

McBrayer dropped one bomb during the 14th’s last deployment, destroying a vehicle-borne bomb.

Putting that moment into words is difficult, McBrayer said. Emotions are bittersweet. It’s a chance to finally put skills to the test in combat.

Yet the pilot feels anxious, hoping the bomb gets there in time to help, he said.

It’s also sobering to realize people on the other side of the fighting may die as a result, he said.

Chow food is much easier to describe. "You could gain 50 pounds there easily," McBrayer said.

Every bit of information helps, said Lt. Col. Shane Riza, the squadron’s new commander.

"Because the fight is essentially the same fight this time, just knowing where we’re going to live and how we’re going to operate is actually a huge load off the minds of first-time deployers and their families," he said.

McBrayer is looking forward to his second deployment with the 14th because of the job.

"It’s really rewarding to get out there and help the Army," he said.

Since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the number of F-16s tasked with missions there has nearly doubled, Marek said.

Often, the pilots said, they can be effective without employing any munitions, pointing out that merely the sound of F-16 engines overhead can raise troops’ morale.

To prepare for the deployment, the squadron has participated in several exercises away from Misawa, including Green Flag outside Las Vegas, where the desert terrain is more like Iraq.

The squadron also is working with joint tactical air controllers, who facilitate communication between pilots and ground forces, here on temporary duty from South Korea and Alaska.

The new pilots have to prove they’re capable of suppressing enemy air defenses — the traditional mission of Misawa’s "Wild Weasels" in northern Japan — and in providing close air support.

Squadron commander Riza said they’ll be ready.

"If I can build a fighter pilot who thinks and has the basic skills set, then that guy can do anything that I ask him to do," he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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