RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Members of the 48th Fighter Wing feel as if the coach has left Michael Jordan on the bench for the big game.

During the buildup that resulted in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Liberty Wing, as it is called, felt it was a sure bet to have a piece of any fight.

“There was an expectation that if anyone was called, here we are, closer to the (area of operations) than anyone else,” said Col. William DelGrego, commander of the 48th Operations Group.

Because of the wing’s frequent efforts over the years to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq, DelGrego said, many of his pilots are familiar with the terrain. They know what it is like to be shot at.

So sure was the wing of its eventual deployment to the Middle East, it invited spouses to a special meeting to explain the potential deployment.

People were busy updating wills and completing forms for power of attorney.

“We had some families that went home,” said DelGrego.

Yet with the first week of the war nearly at an end, the wing remains in eastern England. There was never an official announcement, but it is widely believed the wing would have gone to Turkey, which voted not to allow the U.S. to use its air bases.

“I really thought we’d be one of the first wings down there,” said Staff Sgt. Shawn Mullins of the 48th Maintenance Group. “This has been the go-to wing in Europe — worldwide, for that matter — for a long time.”

Instead, said Mullins, who trains crews to load munitions, he and the rest of the wing are watching the war on television.

“It is frustrating,” he said. “Even the smallest tasking, I’d be happy to do. Everybody here is ready to go.”

Capt. Tim Ferenschak, an F-15E pilot with the 492nd Fighter Squadron, admitted the wing’s training in recent months had an increased sense of urgency.

“We ramped up our training a little bit more,” he said.

But, he added, the wing is always prepared to deploy. That’s just part of being in the 48th, where the training is always intense, no matter what the world situation.

“We train to be ready for whatever occurs,” he said. “We’re always prepared and we’re always ready to go. Everybody has the feeling we’d like to be there. But we’re still doing our training. “We’re still flying here.”

He said members of the 48th are concerned for the pilots who are flying over Iraq. Many of them are friends of pilots at RAF Lakenheath.

“It’s kind of like a big brethren,” he said.

The Lakenheath airmen watch the news and wait for word that all the planes have returned safely from their missions.

Lt. Col. Janet Bent, commander of the 48th Mission Support Squadron, also said the expectation was that the wing would have a role to play in the effort to oust Saddam from power.

“The 48th’s history is, they have been in every conflict, answering our president’s call,” she said.

One of her squadron’s missions is to ensure the paperwork for every deployed person is up to date and complete. Although that is an ongoing process, it can’t be completed until the deployment order arrives and people are tabbed for the mission.

“We have basically started and stopped a few times,” she said.

She said the atmosphere in the wing hasn’t changed with the start of the war.

“From what we’ve seen, folks want to get there. They want to take part,” she said. “They want to defend our country.”

DelGrego said the leadership must keep people focused through their disappointment so they are ready if called.

“These guys know they could replace any of the units that are there now,” he said.

Some of the flying units in the war deployed several weeks ago and have been away from their home bases for nearly 90 days already, he pointed out.

Plus, he said, there will be a need for a fighter unit to preserve the peace after the shooting stops and the rebuilding and humanitarian effort kick in.

There might be time yet, he said, for the 48th Fighter Wing to get off the bench and into the game. That’s the focus now.

“We’ve got to be ready to do our part,” DelGrego said.

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