01/18/09 — Idaho F15-E pilots find warm welcome at SJAFB

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Idaho F15-E pilots find warm welcome at SJAFB

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 18, 2009 2:00 AM

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335th Rocketeers Senior Airman Melissa Wess, left, and 1st Lt. Crystal Kirkley greet the 391st from Mountain Home Air Force Base on the flight line Friday.

There were no wives or girlfriends with tears in their eyes standing along the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line Friday afternoon.

There were no children waving American flags to welcome their daddies back from war.

No father was there with a firm handshake -- no mother to comfort with a long embrace.

But the scene that unfolded when a dozen F-15E Strike Eagles touched down on American soil after four months in the desert still resembled a homecoming.

And for the two dozen men who spent their Christmas and New Year's taking air power to anti-Coalition forces in Afghanistan, in many ways, it was -- a homecoming.

Members of the Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho-based 391st Fighter Squadron made a stop at Seymour Johnson Friday to meet with old friends, tell stories and help prepare 4th Fighter Wing air crews for their pending stints at Bagram.

"For us, it's like coming home," said Lt. Col. Dan Orcutt, commander of the 391st and former member of the 4th's own 335th Fighter Squadron. "And the reception we got from those guys on the flight line, it was really moving."

For each jet that rolled to a stop in front of a row of maintenance hangars, a group of fellow Strike Eagle aviators was waiting -- some with champagne bottles and homemade signs, others with plenty of bottled water and a few cold beers.

Capt. Ken Juhl was one of those on the receiving end.

Like other members of his squadron, he was once a member of the 4th Fighter Wing.

He remembers touching down on that same flight line years ago under much different circumstances.

"We've all been here before," he said. "It's great to be back."

And it was great for those currently stationed in Goldsboro to see familiar faces -- former comrades with whom they share an enduring bond.

"You're always looking for the face you recognize," said 4th Vice Commander Col. Dan Debree.

"It's great to see old friends," added 335th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Lance Bunche. "It adds to the camaraderie of what it is to be a part of the Strike Eagle community."

The stopover also gave 4th air crews a chance to hear just what they would be up against when they begin tours at Bagram later this year.

Orcutt said air power was in "much higher demand" in Afghanistan since the last time the 391st's Seymour Johnson counterparts flew missions over the country.

In the past four months alone, he and his crews flew more than 1,700 combat missions over 7,000 hours -- delivering more than 131,000 pounds of ordnance and saving civilians and coalition troops.

Bunche said hearing about the missions this weekend would be invaluable to his squadron when they return to the desert.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for us to get in touch with what's going on over there right now," he said.

By this morning, the airmen and their jets had returned to Idaho for the real homecoming -- the one featuring family outside the F-15E community.

But Orcutt had a message for those who made their brief stint at Seymour Johnson such a memorable one.

"My key message is thank you," he said. "It means a lot."