by Louise R. SHAW
HILL AFB—Several hundred airmen were greeted by hugs, cheers and tears as they returned to Utah from an assignment abroad Saturday.
As the Boeing-777 carrying fathers, mothers, husbands and girlfriends pulled up near the hangar, family members waved signs, members of the Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention beside American flags, and fellow airmen waited to welcome them home.
Personnel from the active duty 388th Fighter Wing and the Reserve 419th Fighter Wing returned home from the first long-term deployment of the F-35A in late afternoon on May 5.
Their assignment was to Kadena Air Base in Japan, where some served for three months and others for six or seven.
Rebecca Means held a sign to welcome her husband home: “I’d wait for you forever but seven months is long enough,” it read.
Beside her was two-and-a-half-year-old Keaton, who knows his dad pretty well thanks to Facetime, she said. This was her husband’s first deployment.
“I love it,” she said. “I’m so proud of him. He does this to serve our country and to take care of our family. We respect his decision to serve his country.”
Nearby, Becky Gale stood with her five children, awaiting the return of her husband, Tech Sgt. Andrew Gale, from his second deployment.
She hadn’t told her children until just three hours earlier that their dad would be home that day. Until then, it was soccer games and ward parties and more soccer games.
“I’ve been learning how to be a single mom,” she said, “but I’ve been blessed with the support of my Air Force family and my personal family.”
The Air Force family, she said, “knows exactly what you’re going through and they know exactly what you need.”
There is sacrifice on both sides of a deployment, said Col. Gina Sabric, commander of the 419th reserve wing.
“It’s a sacrifice to deploy and it’s a sacrifice to the families,” she said. The feeling of the airmen on the plane is “you can’t get there quick enough.”
Both Sabric and Col. Lee Kloos, commander of the 388th active-duty wing, spoke positively about what the airmen were able to accomplish during the deployment.
“The jets performed great,” said Kloos. “They flew over 1,000 sorties and performed admirably. Plus they were able to integrate with other U.S. forces in the area and reassure our partners in the region. We all learned from each other how we can work together.”
According to information from the Air Force, the deployment is part of a routine theater security package (TSP) that “demonstrates continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”
Pilots flew 1,086 sorties and deployed eight times to other locations, working with the Japanese Self Defense Force and the Republic of Korea Air Force as well as the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
On Saturday afternoon, 8-year-old C.J. Allen held a flag near his mother, Megan Boulton, and other members of the Patriot Guard, as he watched the airmen leave the plane and rejoin their families.
“These are really good people,” he said. “I want to serve too.”
“It’s an honor to be here,” added Boulton. “There’s no other way to describe it but an honor to be here for these people who do so much for us.”
As he hugged his two children who seemed reluctant to leave his side, Andrew Thomas, like other airmen, was all smiles. He called being home the “greatest feeling ever.”