05/26/06 — Heroes welcomed, 300 airmen return home to cheers, hugs

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Heroes welcomed, 300 airmen return home to cheers, hugs

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 26, 2006 1:53 PM

Every day for the past five months, Marga Cruz and her two young sons placed a sticker on their "countdown board." With each sticker, Jackson and Kaleb's "daddy" was one day closer to coming home.

The boys put the last sticker up Thursday -- their father, Staff Sgt. David Cruz, along with more than 300 other airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, were only a few hours away.

The Cruz family was among hundreds who gathered in a hangar at the base to welcome their loved ones home from war. Just after noon, members of the 4th Fighter Wing who were deployed earlier this year in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom were on a plane somewhere in the skies above.

As base officials announced that the plane was only a few minutes away, the crowd began cheering and shouting. It was almost time.

Mrs. Cruz said this isn't the first time her husband has been deployed -- he's left five times before, but this deployment was harder on the children.

"It's been interesting," she said. "I have two small boys, 5 and 3 years old. They've been learning how to deal with it just like I have."

The boys have adjusted to life with "just mommy" well, she said, but they still didn't know what to think -- one day their father was at home, and then he was gone.

"It's gotten harder because they're at the age now where they're asking questions," Mrs. Cruz said. "They just don't understand."

Jackson, 5, knew it was just a matter of time before all those months of waiting would be over. As he walked around the hangar with an American flag waving in his hand, he repeated "Daddy" over and over again.

Mrs. Cruz said he graduated from preschool earlier in the day, but hasn't talked about anything but seeing his father's face. He has big plans for their reunion, she said.

"We're gonna play games," Jackson said. "Computer games."

Jackson's younger brother Kaleb, 3, wasn't thinking that far ahead. He only had one thing on his mind.

"I want to kiss daddy," he said to his mother.

Within minutes of his request, the plane transporting the men back home to Seymour touched down. As the cheering and shouting intensified, a range of emotions overwhelmed Mrs. Cruz.

"It brought tears to my eyes," she said. "I felt like my heart was going to pump out of my chest."

But she's been through moments like this one before. This time, she wanted her sons to soak it all in, she said.

"I'm going to let the boys have him first," Mrs. Cruz said. "But later, he's all mine."

While the crowd waited for their loved ones to fill out customs paperwork and exit the plane, another set of sons was beginning to get restless.

Shawn Moon, 6, and his brother Devin, 3, had not seen their father in months. They, too, have been keeping a close eye on the time, anticipating his return as much as their mother.

"They've been counting down the days, hours and minutes," Mary Moon said.

This is the first time her husband, Chris, has been deployed, she added, and being a "single mom" for the last few months has been tough on the family.

"It's been really hard," she said. "You have to do everything. And the kids, they ask you questions every day."

The only answer they need to hear is that their dad is almost home, she added.

While Mrs. Moon watched her boys play, the reality of her husband's homecoming set in -- and so did her nerves.

"I feel antsy and nervous, and I don't understand why," she said. "I mean it's my husband. It feels like right before a job interview. Or maybe like before your first date."

The Moons had planned to go out to dinner to celebrate.

Across the hangar, Nicole Daley and her two children, Alexis, 8, and Hunter, 3, also sat in anticipation.

Mrs. Daley said she has been able to communicate with her husband through e-mails and phone calls, but seeing him in person will be a welcome sight. She has been a military wife for 10 years and understands that deployments come with the territory.

Still, the children struggle with it, she added.

"It's been really hard on them," Mrs. Daley said, looking down at her son and daughter. "This was his first time gone since the war started."

A few hours after her husband got home, the family planned to go to Alexis' last soccer game of the season.

"You'd better score a goal for daddy," Mrs. Daley said to the 8-year-old.

"I will," Alexis replied.

When the door of the plane finally opened just after 1 p.m., cheering and yelling could be heard up and down the flight line.

Wet eyes hid behind camera lenses while shaking hands snapped the perfect shot of the airmen walking down the staircase. Youngsters climbed onto adult shoulders, trying to steal the first glimpse of their parents.

The airmen, too, were all smiles as they approached the hangar. One looked up when he heard his daughter yell "here I am Daddy." Now smiling, he called back "Hey there sweetheart. Daddy's home."

As the large group of airmen continued their approach, Mrs. Cruz whispered to Kaleb, now in her arms.

"Look for daddy," she said.

A few moments later, the airmen and crowd were now one group. Tight embraces, long kisses, hugs, handshakes and tears overwhelmed the scene.

Still, some airmen had their minds on more simple things -- no big celebration needed.

"It's great to be home," Senior Airman Ryan Stafford said. "Now I want a shower."

Stafford added time away from family and friends made him think about what he left behind.

"It feels good," he said. "When you're home, you don't think anything of it. But when you get back, you realize why you missed it."

Staff Sgt. Doug Retcher stood away from the hundreds of reunions taking place in the hangar.

"It was a pretty long flight, and I'm glad to be home," he said. "Now I just want to relax a little."

Retcher added that while being home was a great feeling, the work he did overseas was equally rewarding.

"It was good to fight in the War on Terror," he said. "That's why we're here."