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Staff Sgt. Bryan Hughes, 13th Fighter Squadron NCO in charge of intelligence at Misawa Air Base, Japan, briefs airmen recently on morale and quality of life issues at Balad Air Base, Iraq. The 13th Fighter Squadron is getting ready to replace the 14th Fighter Squadron at Balad.

Staff Sgt. Bryan Hughes, 13th Fighter Squadron NCO in charge of intelligence at Misawa Air Base, Japan, briefs airmen recently on morale and quality of life issues at Balad Air Base, Iraq. The 13th Fighter Squadron is getting ready to replace the 14th Fighter Squadron at Balad. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Pacific edition, Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Before they even step foot in Iraq, airmen with the 13th Fighter Squadron will know how long it takes to walk from where they sleep to where they eat.

And, if they’ve been paying attention, tucked in their military-issued duffle bags will be extra hangars and a battery-powered alarm clock.

This month, the 13th Fighter Squadron will replace the 14th Fighter Squadron at Balad Air Base, 40 miles north of Baghdad. The F-16 squadrons, both assigned to Misawa, are swapping the job of providing close-air ground support to coalition forces in Iraq.

Integral to preparing for the four-month deployment is information: Information about what to expect, from the certainty of mortar fire overhead to the quality of mess hall meals.

That knowledge comes from the squadron’s information gurus, who work in military intelligence.

Since mid-March, they’ve been putting the squadron’s enlisted airmen through a deployment reality check once a week, sharing with them some of the information they brief the pilots on daily about the situation downrange.

“It gets them into that warrior mind-set,” said 1st Lt. Christina Sheets, 13th Fighter Squadron chief of intelligence section. “People kind of lose that focus sometimes and they don’t understand why we’re going — why we’re going to be working as long as we’re going to be working. We want to get them ready and we want them to know they matter to the mission.”

The weekly briefings can be a history lesson, looking at the roots of the sectarian violence in Iraq. “I think it’s important to have a foundation on why they’re fighting in the first place,” Sheets said.

But mostly they focus on what life at Balad will be like. During a recent briefing, airmen were told to expect daytime temperatures of 95 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit and wind gusts up to 50 mph. But the harsh elements are balanced somewhat by hearty meals of lobster and steak at dining facilities stocked with a salad bar and free Gatorade.

Staff Sgt. Bryan Hughes, 13th Fighter Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of intelligence, said to expect strict standards, including no drinking or co-habitation and tucking shirts into physical training uniforms.

“If you’re putting your hands in your pockets, I’ve heard to expect people to be correcting you,” he said.

The airmen also get versed in threats — in this case, dangers inside the wire, since most of them won’t be leaving Balad during the deployment. Sheets said the base is attacked regularly by mortars “so we let them know about that.”

The briefings have included helpful tips from the 14th Fighter Squadron: Bring hangars, a battery-operated alarm clock and consider mailing items ahead of time instead of lugging heavy bags.

“All the things they showed up in theater and wished that they had known, they’re making sure we know,” Sheets 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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