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Wisconsin Eyes In The Sky Protect Wisconsin Boots On The Ground

Col. Steven Bensend (left) talks with Lt. Col. Erik Peterson at an air base in Iraq. Bensend commands 3,200 Wisconsin Army Guard Soldiers on the ground, while Peterson commands about 300 Wisconsin Air Guard troops providing air support. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Lasure)

Col. Steven Bensend (left) talks with Lt. Col. Erik Peterson at an air base in Iraq. Bensend commands 3,200 Wisconsin Army Guard Soldiers on the ground, while Peterson commands about 300 Wisconsin Air Guard troops providing air support. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Lasure)

Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team look over one of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's F-16 fighters at an air base in Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Lasure)

Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team look over one of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's F-16 fighters at an air base in Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tyler Lasure)

IRAQ -- While more than 3,200 soldiers of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team have their boots on the ground in Iraq, some of their fellow Guardsmen from the state's Air National Guard have their jets in the sky overhead. It isn't often that aerial support for Army Guard ground troops comes from an Air Guard unit from the same state, but for the past two months about 300 members of Wisconsin's Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing are in Iraq with about a dozen F-16 fighters.

The two top commanders - Army Guard Col. Steven Bensend and Air Guard Lt. Col. Erik Peterson - met at an air base in Iraq as the fighter unit was nearing completion of its mission here.

"It really hits home because you are protecting, you're helping the guys that you fight with every day back home, the guys that you live with everyday," Peterson said. "You're basically putting a face to the people on the ground that you are supporting."

Bensend called it "very comforting" to know Wisconsin Air National Guard troops are helping to protect the soldiers of his 32nd Brigade.

"Knowing that there are Wisconsin pilots in those planes protecting us is a great feeling," Bensend said. "Not very often do we get to say 'Yea, I know that guy...and he knows I'm down here.'"

It takes a lot more than just pilots to keep the F-16s flying. Most of the approximately 300 Air Guard personnel provide support on the ground to keep the jets in the air. They also understand the troops their aircraft are supporting are fellow Wisconsinites.

"It definitely gives you a purpose when they are your own guys," said Staff Sgt. Tim Blommel, an egress systems maintenance specialist who was working on one of the jet's ejection seats inside a maintenance hangar.

The 115th Fighter Wing is not deployed in its entirety, with most of the wing maintaining operations at Truax Field in Madison. The deployed fighter package's mission includes around-the-clock overwatch, reconnaissance, and both counter IED and counter mortar support.

"I think it's a pretty great experience for all of us," Peterson said.
"You know every time we come over here we are focused on helping the guys on the ground and we see that as our primary mission while we are here."

"If we know that we've saved just one life, that makes it for us,"
Peterson said.

The troops on the ground agree.
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