By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 8, 2009 1:46 PM
Ani Lugin, 4, sits on his grandfather Bill Donberg's shoulders and waves at his aunt and uncle, Captains Jani and Ben Donberg, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro as hundreds of airmen from the 336th Rocketeers return from Afghanistan.
Liberti Cross, 6, is reunited with her father, Timothy, on the flightline as family, friends and fellow airmen gather to welcome the 336th Rocketeers home early today.
336th Rocketeer Senior Airman William Cole is reunited with his 14-month-old son, Noah.
Liberti Cross loves airplanes, so the prospect of spending part of her sixth birthday watching one land on the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line was enough to keep her awake as Monday evening wore on to Tuesday.
But there was something special about this particular touchdown -- something that prompted the little girl to wear her flight suit; something that kept her from fleeing the cold rain that began falling shortly after midnight.
Her father, Timothy, was on board.
So when he stepped off that aircraft and into view, she left her grandmother's side and ran into his arms.
And in that moment, Liberti wasn't thinking about the pizza party she will have later this week or the fact that her mother, Jennifer, began her own tour at war a few weeks ago.
None of that seemed to matter now that her daddy was home.
"I think it's great," said Terri Dorrell, her grandmother. "He couldn't have timed it any better."
Hundreds of members of the 336th Rocketeers -- F-15E air crews, maintainers and support personnel -- returned to Seymour Johnson early this morning, marking the end of a tour at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, that began in late April.
Their mission: To provide 24/7 air power via Strike Eagles -- escorting convoys, responding to troops-in-contact calls, executing shows of force to deter enemy forces and, when necessary, dropping ordnance -- in support of Coalition operations on the ground.
And they did it well, producing more than 8,000 combat hours in 120 days.
Even after suffering the loss of two of their own -- Capt. Mark McDowell and Capt. Thomas Gramith.
4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly understands just how impressively his airmen performed in theater.
Just more than a year ago, he was flying F-15Es over the "fierce terrain" found in Afghanistan.
To produce even one sortie there requires all the skills the men and women under his command possess, he said.
"So to do it 8,500 times in four months ... is nothing short of Herculean," Kelly said. "It couldn't have been done better."
4th Maintenance Group Commander Col. Joseph Diana agreed.
"The sense of accomplishment is immense," he said. "So there's a lot of 'Way to go.'"
But both men realize that the Rocketeers' homecoming was only one side of what has transpired recently at Seymour Johnson -- that just a week ago, members of the 335th Chiefs replaced its homeward bound sister squadron at Bagram.
"The Taliban don't take a day off, so neither can we," Kelly said.
Even so, he encouraged those who returned Tuesday to enjoy the next few days with family and friends.
"They need to take in these moments," he said.
And that's exactly what they did on that flightline this morning.
Wives and husbands ran into each other's arms before sharing long embraces and passionate kisses.
Children jumped up and down and hugged the necks of parents they haven't seen in a quarter year.
Members of the local Military Affairs Commission extended handshakes and thanks for jobs well done.
"Being out here and seeing all this, it's emotional," MAC chairman Dr. Mike Gooden said.
And then there was Liberti, who left the flight line in her father's arms -- her cheek resting on his as tears wet his face.
As for the airmen, they were just happy to be there.
"We're ready," said Lt. Col. Neil Allen, 336th Fighter Squadron commander. "We're ready to be home."