09/29/06 — Daddy's home - Seymour crews return from deployment

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Daddy's home - Seymour crews return from deployment

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 29, 2006 1:59 PM

Capt. Don Haley's eyes lit up when his daughter blew him a kiss and called him "Dada" on the flight line at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Thursday.

Sixteen-month-old Mackenzie has said it before. She's been talking for weeks now.

But her dad wasn't there to hear her.

He was deployed in defense of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom -- watching those milestones instead on homemade DVDs.

Capt. Haley missed his daughter's first word.

He missed her transition from crawl to walk.

Chances are he was in a fighter jet when they happened.

From a base in Southwest Asia, he heard her talk to the telephone, knowing only that the voice she heard on the other end was his.

But Thursday, after his F-15 Strike Eagle touched down, he got to look into her eyes.

And all those months away were shelved in the moment he first saw his little blonde-haired girl's smile of recognition.

Her daddy was home.

Capt. Haley was one of eight members of the 335th Chiefs who reunited with their families after serving overseas. Their stories were similar -- many days away from loved ones, milestones missed.

There were many other moms and children there. They stood staring at the sky, waiting, welcome home signs poised, flags waving.

In the Strike Eagles, high in the air, their fathers and husbands were waiting, too, scanning the ground for the sign that they were almost home.

Capt. Haley said he started to feel the thrill as he and his weapons systems officer, 1st Lt. Nathan Rivinius, flew by the Statue of Liberty. It was then they started to realize home was near.

"After seeing brown for a long time, seeing green and things that are familiar, it's special," he said. "Once we hit that last tanker, I definitely got butterflies in my stomach."

Mackenzie smiled and pointed at her dad.

As he picked her up and lifted her high into the air, he said it was time to rekindle their father-daughter bond.

"We're catching up now," Haley said. "My wife (Julie) did an awesome job helping me feel connected while I was gone."

Mrs. Haley said the last few months have been hard.

"It's having your teammate gone and having to make those important decisions by yourself," she said. "Hoping you are not messing up. I just hate that he's been having to miss so many milestones in her life."

Each day, Mrs. Haley said she tried to keep her husband in Mackenzie's mind. Maybe that's why she wouldn't stop talking about him -- when she finally learned how to.

"She's been talking about her daddy ever since," she said. "Kissing his picture."

When the sound of the Strike Eagles landing surrounded the hangar, excitement began to build for both wife and daughter.

"It's just so exciting," Mrs. Haley said. "It really feels like our wedding day all over again."

Mackenzie smiled, repeating "dada" over and over.

"There he is," her mother told her, pointing at one of the jets rolling by.

The Haleys were the last family to walk away from the line of F-15s home fresh from war. The three just couldn't seem to let go of each other.

"I'm elated," Capt. Haley said. "I'm just so happy to be here. To be home."

The family is planning to get reacquainted on the South Carolina coast for the next few weeks.

And maybe, just maybe, Mackenzie will show her father just how much she's learned while he was in the skies over the Middle East, fighting for freedom.

"I've missed them both so much," he said.