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Female fighter pilot drops 'Die Saddam' bombs

From Gary Tuchman

"Thumper" has flown more than 30 combat missions since the start of the war.

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In our 'War Stories' series, CNN correspondents tell the story of war from the perspective of one person living through, recovering from or fighting the war in Iraq. CNN's Gary Tuchman interviewed "Thumper," a fighter pilot based at an air base near the Iraqi border.

(CNN) -- When Thumper flies an F-16, she flies solo, acting as pilot, navigator and bombardier.

"I actually like it that way, because it gives me the opportunity to be in control of the jet, not have somebody second-guessing the things that I'm doing, and I like that aspect of flying this jet, " she says.

Audio Slide Show: 'Capt. Thumper's' F-16 

Thumper is the Air Force captain's "call-sign." For security reasons, active-duty pilots use only their call signs for identification.

Flying with faith

Thumper's first mission in the war on Iraq was on March 20, the day the war started. Asked if she was scared, she says, "I know that I've been trained well to do my job, so I wasn't scared. I have a strong faith in God ... I pray before every mission, and I put it in his hands."

Thumper says her faith does not conflict with duty as a fighter pilot which requires her to drop bombs which may kill people.

"I know a lot of people find those to be contradictory, but I believe that God's put me in this job," she said. "Nobody really wants to go to war, but it's our job as fighter pilots to be prepared to do that. And no fighter pilot wants to get left behind when a war is going on."

Faith was some comfort when lightning struck her plane during a bombing mission into Iraq.

"We went up into northern Iraq in support of some of the Army forces, and they were calling us in ... to put the bombs on a road intersection which was right in the middle of an engagement they were having with the enemy."

The bombs destroyed the road between the Iraqi and coalition troops.

"They said that the bombs we put into that place actually ended up ending the conflict there," she said recalling the mission. "It was a really good feeling inside to know that we had helped support the ground troops. I know those guys are working really hard. They're getting less sleep, (they are) less comfortable than we are. And my job is to be out there to support them and to help them stay alive."

During the mission, lightening struck Thumper's plane, knocking out her threat warning system, which tells her whether she is being targeted by anti-aircraft artillery fire.

"That was a little bit stressful, but everything else was OK," she said, adding that she was flying next to another plane able to detect anti-aircraft fire.

On another mission, Thumper dropped bombs on the Medina Republican Guard to "soften" forces before Marine troops moved into Baghdad.

Bombs for Saddam

Thumper showed a reporter a bomb to be loaded onto one of the F-16s. Scrawled on the top is a message: "Die Saddam." Another message says: "This one is going straight into your grave, Saddam."

Messages like those are not unusual she says. "It's actually pretty common for our different troops. ... It's part of their motivation and their effort in the war."

Thumper uses an in-flight computer screen to select a bomb or missile she will drop.

"We'll display on there what types of munitions we have selected. We can toggle through the different selections and choose the one that we want to drop."

Then she selects the master arms switch and presses what's called the "pickle button" to dispense the munition.

Asked if she feels tense before dropping a bomb or missile, she says, "I definitely have adrenaline pumping ... kind of like getting ready for athletic competition. You just have that anticipation of making sure that you've taken all the correct steps and you are dropping on the right coordinates, that you are dropping on the right thing."

What advice does Thumper have for women and girls who want to follow her career path?

"This is a great and rewarding career. Right now in the military, there are opportunities open to women that they just haven't had in the past. And I would tell them to, if they have a dream, to go for it."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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