05/11/08 — 300 more airmen now back home

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300 more airmen now back home

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 11, 2008 2:00 AM


News-Argus Staff Writer

Lauren Cooper's 14th birthday present brought her to tears.

All she really wanted was to see her father, Gabriel.

It had been four months since their last embrace.

So as a group of nearly 300 airmen stepped off a DC-10 and made its way down the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line Friday afternoon, Lauren stood on the tips of her toes and scanned the faces in the crowd.

And all of a sudden, there he was -- her hero, her birthday wish come true, her "daddy."

Hundreds celebrated the homecoming of the latest 4th Fighter Wing airmen to return from war alongside Lauren and her family.

Lauren's mother, Jennifer, was one of them.

"I have been up since 3:30 this morning," Mrs. Cooper said. "And last night, I was just pacing around."

But this is not the first time she has waited in a hangar or on a flight line waving an American flag.

Gabriel has deployed more than a dozen times during their 15-year marriage.

"You get into a routine, but it's still not easy," she said. "I mean, he is gone four months a year. But it's his job. What can you do?"

The jobs of Tech. Sgt. Cooper and his comrades have varied over the past several months.

Some were the maintainers who kept the 4th's fleet of F-15E Strike Eagles in the skies over Afghanistan all day, every day, during their tour.

Others worked convoys and responded to improvised explosive devices on the ground.

And 4th air crews provided cover for Allied forces and even dropped some ordnance when they had to.

But each man and woman had one thing in common.

When they stepped off that DC-10 Friday afternoon, the first face they saw was that of Steve Kwast.

The 4th Fighter Wing commander never misses a chance to say "thank you."

"This is the best part of the business," the colonel said. "There is such a deep sense of joy that comes with watching families reunite. It just blows me away every single time."

Command Chief Layton Clark was the next in line.

"I love these days," he said. "It doesn't get much better than this."

Operations Group Com-mander Col. Russell Walden said there was "no place else" he would rather be.

And then there were the community leaders.

Wayne County Commis-sioner Andy Anderson was among them.

A retired service member, he showed up to honor his comrades.

"When I came home from Vietnam, we didn't have anything like this. We were spit on," he said. "That will never happen again. Not if I can help it."

So he thanked as many as he could, and watched as each hurried down the flight line toward the raucous group of family members and friends that had made its way out of the hangar and up the ramp.

Back in the crowd, the Coopers and other families couldn't wait for their loved-ones final few steps.

Wives ran and jumped into their husbands' arms.

Children clutched legs and looked up at their mothers and fathers.

"What a special moment," Kwast said. "What a special day."

It would be for Lauren's 12-year-old brother, Isaak.

"(Me and dad) are going to go fishing and play video games," he said.

Less than an hour after that aircraft touched down, most had similar plans -- downtime at home, a little fun, good food and a warm bed to sleep in.

Many were still wiping tears off their cheeks as they made their way to the parking lot.

The crowd was shrinking, but there were still dozens of airmen filing in.

One of them had no parent, spouse or child on hand to greet him.

He couldn't have been much older than 20.

He appeared tired, exhausted really.

He wasn't smiling.

But then, something happened -- something that made a group of passersby stop and stare, something that might have exemplified what a redeployment is all about.

Something that made that airman smile.

An older woman approach-ed him.

"Excuse me, we have never met. You don't know me," she said. "But I just wanted to tell you how happy I am that you're home."