12/03/07 — Love at their first sight: Families wait along flight line

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Love at their first sight: Families wait along flight line

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 3, 2007 2:07 PM

Samantha Eovine spent much of her walk to the flight line counting F-15Es.

"There's a million," she said. "One, two, three ... "

But when the 4-year-old reached a group of friends and family members huddled behind a white line on the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base tarmac, she looked skyward for the only Strike Eagle that really mattered -- the one her "daddy" was commanding somewhere through the clouds overhead.

To those outside the base gates, the sight of four fighter jets coming in for landing might have seemed typical for a Wayne County Sunday afternoon.

Most had no idea they were coming home from war.

But back on that tarmac, Samantha's mother, Nadine, was trying to hold it together for a few more moments.

She had stayed strong for nearly four months -- for Samantha and her twin sister, Charlotte, for 8-year Mickey and the Air Force major roaring in from Afghanistan.

So she did her best not to break down until after she had put earplugs in the girls' ears.

The tears came only when four Strike Eagles ripped through the clouds.

"Look. Look," Nadine said, directing her three children to look to the horizon. "Wave your little flags. They can see you."

The children jumped up and down while their mother wiped away tears now streaming down her cheeks.

And then, one by one, the jets touched down.

"Can you see? Can you?" Nadine asked Mickey, who was donning a leather jacket that resembled the one his father and other flight crew wear. "See? Right through there?"

"Is that Daddy?" Samantha asked as one rolled by.

"One of them," her mother replied.

Tears were falling.

Flags were waving.

Everyone was ready.

So when the sound of roaring engines died down, families and friends started a 50-yard walk toward those members of the 4th Fighter Wing's 336th Fighter Squadron home early from the desert.

The Eovines, though, were getting impatient.

"They're here," Mickey shouted. "They're here."

He just couldn't wait to tell his father about all the movies and activities he had missed while stationed across the world.

So as Michael climbed out of the cockpit, his son took off in a dead sprint toward him.

Charlotte, Samantha and Nadine followed.

"I see him," Mickey yelled.

"Daddy. Daddy," his sisters added.

It only took a few seconds.

The children had fallen into the arms of their hero.

"Daddy, we were waving our flags for you," Samantha said.

Nadine joined what had become a group embrace.

"Here," she said. "Give me your flags so we can give Daddy a big hug."

And for the next few minutes, that is all they did -- hugs and kisses for a man they had not seen since the September morning the Rockteers went away.

Lt. Col. James Jinnette took in the scene from afar.

He used to be a member of the 336th and has spent hundreds of hours flying with Eovine.

"If you're looking for a hero, there he is," Jinnette said. "It's great to have him back."

The colonel was one of many pilots who showed up for the homecoming.

As commander of the 335th Fighter Squadron, he knows goodbyes and reunions will be a big part of the next year for his own men -- as deployment orders are expected to hit the group in early February.

So for him, the scene was bittersweet -- but more sweet, he says.

Eovine, too, was humbled.

He has been waiting for that hug for a quarter of a year but knows some of his comrades will not make it home for Christmas.

In fact, more than a dozen 336th F-15s are still in Afghanistan.

"It's always great to come back home," Eovine said. "But it's tough to leave the brothers behind."

The flight crews were not the only 4th airmen to return Sunday.

Nearly an hour after the Eovine family walked away from the tarmac hand-in-hand, a few dozen more landed in a C-17.

They were aircraft maintainers, members of the 336th's Aircraft Maintenance Unit.

Wing Commander Col. Steve Kwast said he "wouldn't miss it," and along with his wife and children greeted those coming home in time for Christmas.

"Feeling pretty good," he said. "It's always good to welcome a few folks home early."