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148th Fighter Wing leaves for Afghanistan

For the first time, a significant number of personnel from the 148th Fighter Wing left Duluth on Thursday to serve in Afghanistan. "I've deployed a lot, but not to a war zone," said Staff Sgt. Michael Cole, one of the civil engineers who left Thu...

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For the first time, a significant number of personnel from the 148th Fighter Wing left Duluth on Thursday to serve in Afghanistan.

"I've deployed a lot, but not to a war zone," said Staff Sgt. Michael Cole, one of the civil engineers who left Thursday. "I'm a little nervous, but proud."

About 90 members of the 148th will be deployed overseas until mid-2010. The majority will be civil engineers, the first of whom left Thursday. They will be followed by successive waves over the next two weeks to serve about six months at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A smaller number of security forces deployed to Southwest Asia in early November.

"We're excited to go," said Major John Mazzitello, the highest-ranking engineer who left Thursday. "We've known for months.

"We've been preparing and training. We're proud to be part of the mission."

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This month, President Obama decided to send more combat troops to Afghanistan to battle the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Units based at Bagram Airfield help those efforts by flying close air support, combat search and rescue, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. About 27 miles north of Kabul, Bagram has an 11,820-foot runway capable of handling large cargo and bomber planes.

At Bagram, the 148th's engineers will perform all of the tasks civil engineers do in running a small city. They'll plan, build or repair roads and runways, maintain buildings and provide utility service.

"There's a lot of construction and a lot of maintenance," Mazzitello said.

While the engineers were ready to go, the timing of the departure -- eight days before Christmas -- created some bittersweet moments.

"It's hard; it's not going to be the merriest Christmas ever," Cole said during a farewell breakfast at the base; daughters Emily, 5, and Erika, 3, sitting on his lap. "We had a little Christmas last week."

Cole and his wife, Jessica, did what they could to prepare the girls for Daddy being gone.

"They don't really know what he's getting into," Jessica Cole said. "You do what you have to do. I think we'll get through it OK."

Like Cole, Senior Airman Corrine Sager felt pangs about leaving just before Christmas.

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"I'm going to miss the family stuff," she said as she visited with her mother and a nephew.

Later, a tear ran down Sager's cheek as she walked to the C-130 Hercules transport plane that would take her and her comrades on the first leg of their journey to Afghanistan.

"I'm very proud, but the time of year makes it tough," said Sager's mother, Lisa Sager. "A lot of families did Christmas early. We had a party for Corrine last Saturday -- family, friends and good food."

The Sagers are used to duty-related family separations. Lisa Sager's husband, Warren, retired from the 148th after 23 years of service. During that time, he was deployed from Korea to Kuwait.

"You know this can happen," Lisa Sager said. "We're very proud and hope all of them come home safely."

While this is the first major deployment to Afghanistan, this is the third year running where a significant number of 148th personnel were deployed over the holiday season. Last year a number of pilots and aircraft maintenance workers were in Balad, Iraq. Two years ago a number of pilots and workers were at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

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