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The hard part is over.

It’s been three months since the 13th Fighter Squadron and supporting units from Misawa Air Base, Japan, deployed to Iraq’s Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad.

A month is left, routines are set, and time is flying, said three Misawa maintainers interviewed by phone recently.

But that wasn’t the case when the airmen first set foot in Iraq this spring.

“The first couple of weeks were kind of hard,” said Airman 1st Class Jose Arellano, 24, an F-16 weapons loader from Northern California. “Getting adapted to the heat and just the way things work out here, trying to figure out where everything is and where you’re supposed to be.”

No day so far has jolted Staff Sgt. Joe Chestnut like his first on the job at Balad.

“The first day I went out to the work center, I was walking around the (flight) line, learning where the aircraft are going to be, when we heard loud explosions,” he said. “Sirens were going off. We had to duck for cover.”

Chestnut, 24, an F-16 electrical and environmental systems specialist from Cleveland, Tenn., had experienced his first mortar attack.

It wouldn’t be the last, though none have proven as memorable. “We’re definitely getting quicker at putting our (protective) gear on” during mortar attacks, he said.

But more trying than the loud booms is getting acclimated to the desert environment, Chestnut said.

“It feels like a blow dryer blowing sand in your face,” he said.

Arellano said the base has “everything here.” He stocked his luggage with extra shampoo, toothpaste and physical-training gear, expecting those to be hard to find at Balad. They’re not.

The one thing Tech. Sgt. Arthur Barad couldn’t get at Balad, he had sent to him — his guitar. “Now that I have that, I’m good,” said the 33-year-old from Hampton, Va.

Admittedly, there’s not much time to kick back and strum tunes. Work — 12 hours or more a day, at least six days a week — eats up most days.

But the payoff for long hours on the clock has been worth it, the maintainers said.

“Being able to load live munitions is something I’ve been wanting to do since tech school,” Arellano said. “When the jet leaves, it comes back empty. It’s a feeling of accomplishment.”

Barad’s reward comes at the sight and sound of an F-16 shooting across the sky, he said.

“I’m the big guy with the wrench,” he said of his job fixing F-16 propulsion systems. “Everyone looks up when the F-16 takes off. I’d like to think it’s because of what I’ve done.”

The pace of operations has been mind-boggling, Barad said. “There’s constantly jets in the air.”

Though the maintainers don’t see action outside the wire, the war has found them.

Barad met a soldier, who at just 21, has “bullet wounds from the last time he was here. It’s a humbling effect this place puts on you.”

Chestnut feels closest to the war when he volunteers at the base hospital. He was determined to donate his time there after his soldier cousin was wounded in Afghanistan.

For Barad, the deployment has forced him to look at his priorities at home. He came to Misawa on an unaccompanied tour, while his wife and four sons stayed back in Virginia.

“You have a lot of time to think here,” he said. “I just want to be closer to my boys; that’s the biggest thing.”

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