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BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan

Maj. Randy Haskin and Capt. Matt Chapman are in the final stretch of their 12-hour standby shift — sharing combat sortie stories, joshing with comrades and catching up on news from back home — when the alert siren sounds.

A half-hour earlier they rushed through the same drill, with maintainers rapidly prepping two F-15E fighter jets, officers assuming their seats and the jets’ mighty engines roaring to life. Then the launch was canceled.

But this time there is no anticlimax; this time they launch.

Somewhere in the dusk of this Texas-size country, a group of coalition troops is in peril and two 492nd Fighter Squadron fighter jets scramble to provide air support. For the second day in a row, the RAF Lakenheath-based duo will drop munitions on enemy positions, trumping the adversaries’ ambush with 500-pound bombs.

“We showed up and found some Army guys pinned down, and we helped save those guys,” Chapman said of the previous day’s sortie. “That’s very satisfying. That’s why I wanted to do this job.”

The 492nd deployed to Afghanistan hoping to play a part in the fight against the Taliban. But few in the squadron could have predicted their role would prove so significant.

They expected to maintain 24-hour operations, supporting ground troops with $52 million fighter jets and 4 a.m. launches that rattle this bustling installation.

But the resurgence of the Taliban and their foreign-bred confederates has translated into a mission rife with opportunity to validate years of training and to reaffirm the importance of close air support.

“These wars are close air support wars, not only do we need to do it, we have to do it,” Haskin said.

While the Aug. 23 friendly-fire incident that killed three British soldiers in Helmand province garnered the headlines, the men and women of the 492nd take solace in the fact that scores of laser- and satellite-guided bombs struck their targets, eliminating foes and saving friendlies.

They mourn their inadvertently killed allies, but never stray focus from the fight at hand.

“We both believe in this mission on a fairly deep level, to get out here and be part of it is an honor,” Chapman said.

And the 492nd has been ready when the ground troops called for help.

We’ve participated in 50 percent more sorties than we expected or what was expected of us,” said the 492nd commander, Lt. Col. Troy Stone. “This is the more active theater for close air support, we just don’t get the press.”

Two months of predeployment training in the States, and working with British allies in the United Kingdom have culminated in a synchronized assault that has included dropping about 800 weapons during roughly 1,000 sorties, the 42-year-old Hemlock, Mich., native said.

And Stone’s accomplished this with a relatively young squadron. While Lt. Col. Dave Iverson logged his 3,000th hour during the deployment [see Page 5], another third of his squadron was promoted to captain while deployed.

But it’s not all flight line high-fives, promotion ceremonies and benchmark celebrations. There’s a very real human toll the airmen can’t deny.

Chapman joined the Air Force out of patriotic fervor following Sept. 11, 2001, while Haskin participated in the “shock and awe” opening salvo of the war in Iraq. Both acknowledge a sober reality far removed from the Hollywood glorification of precision airstrikes.

“There’s a lot of somber moments,” the 27-year-old weapons system operator said. “There’s a lot of moments when you come back and say, ‘That just really happened.’”

Chapman’s partner in flight agreed.

“There’s nothing glamorous about combat,” the 34-year-old pilot said.

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