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BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Flying more than 1,000 hours in combat is an accomplishment for any pilot. Five members deployed from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., to the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron on Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, have accomplished that and more during their many deployments to Afghanistan.
"I remember my first deployment in 2002 as a lieutenant when there was just the Russian tower here. A lot has changed since then," said Maj. Lawrence Evert, 74th EFS Director of Operations who is on his sixth deployment.
"Our mission of providing close air support to members on the ground hasn't changed, but the mission of the ground members has," said Evert, native of Hinckley, Ohio. "Today we provide close air support to U.S. service members, coalition forces and to the Afghan forces they are working with on the ground. Even though the public can't directly see the impact we have here, we have been saving lives of the members on the ground for a long time."
On his second deployment, Capt. Alan Goncalves has accumulated more than 1,100 combat hours total in his career. However, unlike the other pilots, 800 of those hours were acquired during his first deployment here in 2010 as a MC-12 pilot. Goncalves said his MC-12 experience has helped him in his new position as an A-10 pilot.
"As an MC-12 pilot we provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for ground members now on my first deployment as an A-10 pilot I do that but in an armed over-watch capacity," said Goncalves, native of Littleton, Colo. "The only difference now is if ground forces start getting shot at I have the ability to provide close air support."
Goncalves has flown as a combat ready wingman on a two ship missions here and said he will never forget the first mission he laid down fire.
"It was a month into my deployment and German and Afghan forces outside the wire on a mission together," he said. "They were on a river bank when they started to receive fire from the tree line and couldn't retreat. In a matter of five minutes of checking in with their controller we were laying down fire which saved their lives. After the fact, we were able to talk to the controller on the ground and you could hear the gratitude in his voice."
Maj. Michael Roche and Capt. Michael Sackenheim are both instructors pilots back at Moody, but here they fly to support the ground servicemembers just like all the other Flying Tigers of the 74 FS.
"One mission I will never forget is when we were called to provide support to ground members in the Kunar valley when a thunderstorm was approaching," said Sackenheim, native of Hamilton, Ohio. "It was memorable because I know the support our jet provided no other aircraft would be able to provide. I learned that we make a bigger impact than we think we do even if we didn't drop bombs. We are always accomplishing something on the ground, because our presence alone can deter the enemy."
Roche on his fourth deployment has flown more than 1,500 combat hours.
"This may very well be the last time the 74th is deployed to Bagram," said Roche, native of Albertson, N.Y. "In the future hopefully the Afghans will be able to provide close air support among their other capabilities. But right now our presence is keeps the service members on the ground alive and we are happy to be here."
Capt. Michael Hilkert, a 74th EFS pilot who has already redeployed to Moody and accumulated 1,100 hours described the squadron's mission here as "eyes in the sky."
"We [74th EFS pilots] are not here to end the war by ourselves, but we can keep our guys on the ground fighting safe," said Hilkert, a native of Waterloo, N.Y. "We build SA [situation awareness] on the war for the guys on the ground and step in as big brother when the bully comes around."