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BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Sixty-four thousand pounds of thrust. Four distinct munitions. Advanced avionics and electronics that can guide a 500-pound bomb to within meters of its target. Some 2,400 gallons of fuel.

And when the ground forces need help in a hurry, these Air Force troops can prep it all in less time than your average wait for an ATM.

While the pilots and weapons systems operators who command the controls of the F-15E fighters often bask in the glory, it’s the enlisted airmen on the ground, working tirelessly in often taxing conditions, who are the difference between success and failure.

Troops such as Senior Airman Nick Schulte, 21, Decorah, Iowa, and Staff Sgt. Joseph Fourine, 27, of Auburn, Mass., who load the guided bomb units and 20 mm tracer rounds onto the fighter jet.

Or Staff Sgt. Donald Lundeen, 24, of Ipana, Ill., and Staff Sgt. Ben Santiago-Rivera, 31, of Penualas, Puerto Rico, who inspect the jet in minute detail after each mission and ensure the cabin pressure and air are up to speed, respectively.

And Tech. Sgt. Tracy Taylor, 32, of Gruver, Texas, and Tech. Sgt. Michael Skiba, 38, of Milwaukee, who work in the back shop fabricating essential parts and measuring bushings down to one-thousandth of an inch.

Without them, the F-15E is little more than a $52 million piece of sleek design.

On their current deployment to Afghanistan, the troops have excelled without so much as a nudge from their commander.

“These maintenance guys have been the best I’ve seen,” said Lt. Col. Troy Stone of the 492nd Fighter Squadron from RAF Lakenheath.

“They’re motivated to get the planes airborne because they believe in the mission. They should take just as much pride in protecting coalition forces and American forces as we do.”

And they do.

Senior Airman Courtney Strickler, 26, of Dallas, is a dedicated crew chief who talks about “her jet” and works with an enthusiasm for the mission that can often lead to bumps and bruises she affectionately brushes off as “eagle bites.”

“If a jet breaks, you bust your butt to get it back in the air. You work hard, you work long, but it’s worth it,” she said. “It takes a lot of work to get this jet in the air and help our brethren on the ground.”

Master Sgt. Jerry Sawyer, 37, of Senath, Mo., ensures the maintenance team has what it needs to succeed. He floats around between the flight line and the back shops helping the airmen achieve a feat few are shy to keep secret: not a single missed sortie on their four-month tour.

“I attribute that to the young men and women out there turning wrenches. They’ve amazed me out there,” Sawyer said.

“They always find a way. It has a lot to do with the mission. Everyone is excited to be here.”


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