When the Taliban close in on U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan, sometimes all that's needed to make them turn and run is the deafening roar overhead of an Iowa Air National Guard F-16.
Taliban fighters know that if they stick around, a laser- or satellite-guided bomb might find them.
"It's enough to scare the dickens out of the enemy," said Lt. Col. Travis Acheson, commander of the Iowa Guard's 124th Fighter Squadron. "They know our air power is so precise."
About 300 Iowa Guardsmen from the Des Moines-based 124th are deployed to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. For most, it is a 60- to 90-day deployment, though it's longer for some.
Several members spoke to reporters during a teleconference Thursday.
The airmen discussed no specifics about the number of missions flown or bombs dropped. But they did describe long days of arming and repairing aircraft and of roaring through central Asian skies to support ground forces by bombing and also intimidating an elusive enemy.
It's been eventful. When most of the unit arrived, the F-16 fighters were based at Bagram Airfield. But the Air Force decided to transfer them about 250 miles south to Kandahar.
It was up to the 124th to get the F-16s there, which it accomplished over the course of several days without missing a mission. A pilot would take off from Bagram, fly a combat mission, then land at Kandahar and be based there from then on.
The unit is helping write the Air Force's operating procedures for how F-16s operate out of Kandahar.
"It's really cool, because we were chosen to do this," Acheson said. "So we take a lot of pride in that."
Their work comes as the Air Force plans to retire the Iowa Guard's F-16 fighters, which date to the late 1980s, and replace them with unmanned drones.
That decision, along with defense budget cuts and the wind-down of post-9/11 wars, could eliminate hundreds of positions in the Iowa Guard's 132nd Fighter Wing, of which the 124th is part. Iowa's congressional delegation has vowed to fight the cuts.
Though the airmen understand the other considerations, they find it surprising that the 124th would be targeted, said Maj. Trenton Twedt.
In 2011, the 132nd Fighter Wing received an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award and the Air Reserve Component Logistics Activity of the Year award.
"If you look at the stats, we are right there at the top," said Twedt, in charge of maintenance for the F-16s. "That's a discussion you hear a lot around here."
The current deployment is the Wing's 10th to the region (from Afghanistan to Turkey) since 1996, according to the Iowa National Guard.
In the air, the pilots worry less about being shot down and more about avoiding 18,000- to 20,000-foot-high mountains and the plethora of other military aircraft that crowd the wartime skies, said 1st Lt. Ryan Stott, an F-16 pilot from Jefferson, Iowa, about 125 miles from Omaha.
"There's a lot of things going on," said Stott, on his first combat deployment. "You've really got to have situational awareness."
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