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Protecting the skies

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16’s, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16’s, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16’s, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16’s, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16’s, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16’s, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. 1Lt Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16's, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
(U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

1st Lieutenant Andrew Lehman, a fighter pilot assigned to the 157th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, prepares to fly his first combat sortie April 20, 2012. 1Lt Lehman is deployed from the 157th FS at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C., in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Swamp Fox F-16's, pilots, and support personnel began their Air Expeditionary Force deployment early April to take over flying missions for the air tasking order and provide close air support for troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/TSgt. Caycee Cook)

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Becoming a fighter pilot was 1st Lt. Andrew "Snapper" Lehman's childhood dream. He started flying at the age of 17 and has worked hard ever since to make that dream count.

Now he's here with his F-16 Fighting Falcon comrades at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, providing armed over watch, reconnaissance and close air support for the troops on the ground who serve outside the wire and, at times, come under fire from the enemy.

"Personally, I can't imagine a higher calling," he said. "There's no better way for me to serve my country than by flying an American fighter jet. Going out there, protecting the skies and protecting our guys on the ground. I'm fortunate to be in a position, trained and equipped to help them."

The path to becoming a fighter pilot is long and arduous. From submitting his application in October 2007 to starting fighter pilot training in July 2009 and "earning his wings" a year later, Lehman says he constantly challenged himself to stay motivated.

"The second you let you motivation fall, the second you take your eye off the prize, is the second you're not going to make it," he said.

The process of becoming a fighter pilot amounts to a very stressful journey. Because the job itself obviously is intense, Lehman said, demonstrating that you can handle high stress from the get-go is a must. "It's a challenge in its own to get the job to begin with," he said. After competing for and earning an opportunity to interview, candidates go up against ten to 15 other highly qualified and motivated men and women, all with their eyes on the same prize.

"Applying and interviewing around the country is by far the hardest part," he said. "It's easy to lose your motivation."

Lehman enlisted in the Alabama Air Guard's 187th Fighter Wing in April 2004. He worked in POL until he was accepted by the SCANG to become a Swamp Fox fighter pilot in May 2008. He joined the SCANG in November of that year, in a POL slot, while he waited to begin fighter pilot training.

Making it to the "B-course" of pilot training was what Lehman enjoyed most. It's when pilots in training finally take the seat of an F-16 Fighting Falcon and fly alone. "The whole experience was phenomenal," he said. "It's obviously a very memorable day."

All the stress and hard work has paid off for him now, as he's deployed to Afghanistan with his fellow Swamp Foxes and flying sorties in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Stepping to the jet for his first combat sortie was somewhat nerve racking. The lieutenant admits to butterflies and a fair amount of nervous anticipation, but, once he was wheels-up, he was able to settle down and focus on the mission. He considers himself fortunate to belong to a fighter squadron with a wealth of experience and talent and said the more seasoned members of the 157th helped prepare him for this next big step in his career.

"Flying that first combat mission was pretty enjoyable," he said. The SCANG pilots traveled around the country, communicating with the troops at various forward operating bases about certain areas they had encountered or marked that needed additional surveillance. They also were tasked with route reconnaissance, searching areas that are traveled daily for IED emplacements to ensure safer missions for the coalition forces.

"We were out there to give them the warm fuzzy," explained Lehman. "Our jet noise in the sky alone lets the non-friendlies know we're there and can react quickly.

"I'm proud to be here," he said. "Though nothing eventful happened while we were out there, we served our purpose. We had combat-ready airplanes in the air, ready to respond to anything. And I think that, in and of itself, is a success."