09/13/07 — More called to duty

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More called to duty

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 13, 2007 2:08 PM

James Mejias is ready for a fight.

So when he went through the deployment line with other members of the 4th Fighter Wing's Equipment Maintenance Squadron Wednesday, there was no fear in his eyes -- just excitement.

The 25-year-old was one of more than 150 who departed Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for an installation in Southwest Asia hours later.

"This is what all of us joined for," the senior airman said. "It's like we have been waiting on the bench forever and now we are finally getting in the game. I can't wait to get on that plane."

But Mejias was not holding an infant-child close to his chest.

He shared no final kiss with a wife or girlfriend.

While he and others found it difficult to hold back their glow, tears were falling across the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line.

A camouflage-clad staff sergeant leaned in for a long embrace with his wife.

"I can't do this," she said, grabbing the back of her husband's head with one hand, cradling her 1-year-old daughter with the other.

"I promise we will make it through this," he replied, wiping a stream of makeup and tears off the rounds of her cheeks. "I swear to God we will make it."

Watching the couple's goodbye took Wing Commander Col. Steve Kwast back.

It was October 2001, the day he shared a similar moment with his wife and children -- the day he took to the skies over Baghdad in an F-15.

"The fact that I have lived what they are about to live gives me the ability to empathize with them," Kwast said. "But more importantly, it allows me to be a better servant for them."

He understands what it is like to long for those people and things left behind for war.

So with every story he shared with a crying spouse, every hug and high-five he offered a flag-waving toddler, Kwast promised those in uniform they had no reason to worry.

"We are going to make sure these families get the support they need -- anything at all," he said. "I consider it a very humbling honor to see to that while their loved ones are gone."

Support from the communities that surround the base help, he added.

Members of the Military Affairs Commission were alongside Kwast for a few minutes during the deployment.

But they spent most of their time wishing the airmen "good luck" -- saying good-bye on behalf of the residents of Goldsboro and Wayne County.

MAC Chairman Henry Smith was among them.

He approached dozens of troops, extending the same warm smile and handshake to each.

"You make us proud," he said to one senior airman. "Thank you so much. Your service means a lot."

Like Kwast, Smith, too, said it was tough to see so many hanging heads and sad faces.

"It really is tough to watch the families break up," Smith said. "There are guys out here with 3-year-old babies."

But he and other MAC members said they are committed to providing support to the deployed and those here at home -- far beyond those moments on the flight line.

And for Kwast, that is what has and always will set the bond between those inside and outside the gates apart.

"These men and women are going to be fighting with peace in their hearts because they know that this community has their back," he said.

Wednesday's deployment was one of several that have occurred on the Seymour Johnson flight line this summer. More than 600 airmen from the 4th departed this month alone, as have dozens more from the 916th Air Refueling Wing's Security Forces Squadron.

Kwast said years from now, those men and women will look back with pride on the part they played in the creation of a free Iraq and Afghanistan and their "selfless defense of liberty across the globe and at home."

"This is a moment in their lives when they get to do something profound," the commander said. "It's their moment to be a hero."