01/21/08 — Heroes' welcome

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Heroes' welcome

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on January 21, 2008 2:02 PM

Saturday night was Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving rolled into one for more than 300 airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and their families.

The largest contingent of airmen from the base in nearly two years returned from duty in Southwest Asia, to the screams of delight from a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 people.

"It's like Christmas when you're a little kid," said Margaret Taylor, who had had driven from suburban Atlanta with her family to greet her son, Capt. Larry Taylor, a weapons systems officer.

When the big passenger jet taxied in shortly before 11 p.m. she ran out onto the tarmac with the rest of her family and waited for her turn to hug him.

Taylor gave his wife a big kiss, hugged his boys and parents and stood still long enough for a couple of photos before heading inside with sons Christopher, 4, and Zachary, 19 months, in tow.

"It's awesome," he said. "I'm so glad to be home and see them all. This is the best Christmas ever."

Heidi D'Ambra and her three girls, Lauren, 7, Caroline 5, and Isabella, 2, waited for her husband, Maj. Jeff D'Ambra, a pilot, as the airmen made their way toward the hangar where the families had waited.

"The whole thing has been like Christmas Eve all over again," she said. "We left our tree up. We've got a special cake, and presents to open."

"I'm expecting a big kiss," Lauren said.

"We're doing Christmas tonight," Susan Dillera said. Her husband, Timothy, was returning from his first deployment. In her arms, she held their daughter, Jordan, who was born only days before he left for his tour of duty.

"He's very excited," she said. "He calls me twice a day."

Kathryn Budzinski was waiting for her boyfriend, Sr. Airman Richard Pillifant. Next to her, her friend Ashley Guillory, waited for her husband, Sr. Airman Brant Guillory. They said that during the deployment they had leaned on one another for comfort.

"We've definitely been there for each other's shoulders," Mrs. Budzinski said. She hadn't seen Pillifant in eight months. An airman herself, she was just coming back from four months overseas when he left.

The contingent who arrived late Saturday included members of various maintenance squadrons and the 336th Fighter Squadron. Most had been deployed since September but some had been gone for as long as a year.

The carnival atmosphere grew as the time for the arrival drew near. The airmen had been originally expected to arrive about 4 p.m., but their jet was delayed several times. About 10:30 p.m., Col. Steve Kwast, the commander of the fighter wing, announced over a loudspeaker that the jet was nearing. Cheers broke out and the crowd began to move toward the hangar door.

When the busloads of airmen pulled into sight and they began getting off, the crowd broke ranks and shouts of greetings filled the cold, damp night.

Kwast said that one wife had told him earlier that the day had been more exciting than her wedding day.

The airmen were to go through several days of debriefing before getting a few weeks of leave.

The Taylors were going to celebrate the holidays in about a week, back home in Georgia.

Capt. Taylor's father-in-law, Glen Palmer, said the family had been especially concerned about this deployment, Taylor's second. This one had placed his unit even deeper into harm's way.

"It was a lot tougher region, pretty primitive," he said. "It left us all anxious for him."

Mrs. Taylor said her faith helped see her through the times when her son was in danger. At her church and at the church of Taylor's in-laws, messages had been posted asking friends to pray for his safe return.

"We did a lot of praying for him," Mrs. Taylor said.

"It's good to get them back," said Chief Master Sgt. Layton Clark, the command chief for the 4th Wing, as he watched the celebration.