A BNAS squadron, VP-8, is flying recon over Middle East battlefields.

Air crews from Brunswick Naval Air Station are flying missions over Iraq.

After weeks of silence, the Navy confirmed Thursday that a 400-member squadron from the Brunswick base has been taking part in the war, flying its planes to Iraq from an undisclosed air base in the Mediterranean.

And they are saving lives, their leader said.

The group, Patrol and Reconnaissance Squadron Eight, has been flying surveillance missions in support of Operation: Iraqi Freedom, said Cmdr. Jeff McKenzie, the squadron’s commanding officer.

From their vantage in the sky, they can tell ground forces what’s beyond the horizon, McKenzie said Thursday from the Mediterranean in a telephone interview.

“We are the eyes and the ears of the fleet,” he said “We paint a picture of the battle.”

Details of the missions, where they have gone or what they’ve seen, are classified.

On Wednesday, base officials told families the squadron was part of the war. Some husbands, wives and children learned the news for the first time.

“They can be proud of the (squadron’s) men and women,” McKenzie said. “I couldn’t be prouder.”

They’re working hard. On a peacetime deployment, days can stretch to 14 or 16 hours long. The week expands to six days. Since the war began, the schedule has been even tougher at times, McKenzie said.

But they have also had rests. During breaks, they’ve had volleyball games and even a barbecue.

Morale is high, said McKenzie.

Staying in touch

Despite separation from families since January, they have managed to stay in touch with home. The crews use a combination of e-mail and inexpensive phone calling cards to communicate with family. “They’re a godsend for young sailors,” he said

McKenzie, a 20-year veteran of the Navy, said this deployment has been the best in his memory for staying connected to family.

“We know we have the support of the people back home,” he said. “That’s what puts us on our ‘A’ game.”

The squadron flies P-3C Orions. The four-engine, propeller-driven aircraft were submarine hunters during the Cold War, but they have been outfitted with state-of-the-art technology. Their cameras can capture live audio and video signals and send them via satellite to commanders around the world.

McKenzie, a second-generation aviator, said flying into the war zone is little different from the missions they have trained for over and over again.

There is “something extra” that happens, he said. But there’s little time to focus on larger meanings.

“You are very much focused on your job,” he said. “They require everyone’s 100 percent. It’s certainly unique. We understand that.”

////Navy’s eyes in the sky

The Brunswick squadron is not alone.

One day into the war, a P-3 from another base helped sink an Iraqi patrol boat in the Persian Gulf, according to the Navy.

The plane was part of a coalition group watching an oil platform near the Al Faw Peninsula, about 295 miles south of Baghdad.

Since Saddam Hussein had set oil wells on fire during the last Gulf War, special operations forces were sent to secure the platform and protect it from sabotage. The Iraqi coastline is dotted with the platforms, used to pump oil into ocean-going tankers.

The P-3 was one of two, home-based in Whidbey Island, Wash., which were sending live video to commanders using their advanced imagery system and nighttime infrared technology.

During the watch, one of the P-3s spotted the Iraqi boat. The plane tracked the boat and sent its information to a nearby Air Force C-130, armed with cannons, a Gatling gun and a 105 mm howitzer.

The gunship sank the Iraqi boat.

Navy officials said Iraqi vessels can pose a threat to coalition ships. Several have been captured while carrying mines.

McKenzie has no such war stories to tell, not yet anyway.

“I can tell you it’s making a difference,” he said of his squadron. “It has, in fact, saved lives,” he repeated.

And he’s confident the U.S., its many military branches, and the coalition, will win together, he said

“It’s one force, one fight,” he said. “We’re going to be successful.”

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