01/06/10 — Chiefs' welcome

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Chiefs' welcome

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 6, 2010 1:46 PM

News-Argus Video Report

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Antoinette Rodgers, left, and James "Dee" Dawson discuss plans for a three-bedroom Koonce Street home, which opens Friday as a shelter for women and children. The two hope to secure other locations to provide temporary housing for homeless and displaced residents.

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Staff Sgt. Randy Wilhide kisses his 5-month-old daughter, Conleigh, shortly after landing at Seymour Johnson.

Trinity Richardson was getting restless.

She had spent months talking to pictures of her father, Christopher -- blowing him kisses as her mother, Mary Kate, flipped through the pages of her "Daddy book."

But Tuesday, for the first time in a four months, the blonde-haired little girl was going to get to look into his eyes.

And even though she is only 16 months old, her mother was convinced she understood exactly why she was waiting among the hundreds gathered inside a chilly hangar on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

"I think she knows," Mrs. Richardson said, looking down as her daughter climbed in and out of her stroller. "I really do."

So when a transport plane touched down on the flight line, it didn't seem to matter that Trinity had been teething ever since her father left for Afghanistan, that her mother was the only one to comfort her when she caught pneumonia.

All that mattered was that he was home -- at last.

"It's been a little bit hard," Mrs. Richardson said. "But we made it."

Hundreds of members of the 335th Chiefs returned to Seymour Johnson early Tuesday evening to thunderous applause, tears and long embraces.

The airmen -- F-15E aviators, maintainers and support staff -- have been stationed at Bagram Airfield since late August, providing a 24/7 air power presence over Afghanistan in support of Coalition forces on the ground -- escorting convoys, responding to troops-in-contact calls with shows of force, and, when necessary, eliminating enemy threats.

4th Fighter Wing Deputy Operations Group Commander Lt. Col. Lance Bunch was among those members of the Chiefs who left Goldsboro for a stint at war months ago.

So even though he returned to the base before the new year, he made sure to be among his comrades when they touched back down.

"I could not be more proud ... of how well they have done," he said. "Whatever it was, the Chiefs rose to the challenge."

Diana Wilson was proud, too -- so much so that she and other members of her family showed up to the homecoming wearing T-shirts bearing her son, Nathan's, picture.

"I'm so proud," she said, pointing her camera at the plane parked a few dozen yards away from the hangar door. "I'm proud of all of them."

The T-shirts, she said, were Nathan's girlfriend, Macy Rowland's, idea.

"It was rough," Macy said. "We had to rely on God."

So when airmen started making their way off the aircraft, she and Mrs. Wilson looked for Nathan with anticipation.

Macy was fidgeting and, every so often, jumped up and down frantically when she thought she saw him come into view.

But her reaction was much different when she finally saw his face among the crowd.

She ran toward him, tears running down her face, and jumped into his arms -- wrapping her legs around his back as if she never intended to let go.

And she didn't -- at least not until the rest of his family was by his side.

"It took a lot of prayer," Mrs. Wilson said. "A lot of prayer and a lot of support."

Those airmen who returned Tuesday will soon go through a re-integration course on base, a program designed to get their minds away from the war zone.

And more members of the Chiefs -- and the F-15E fleet they commanded over Afghanistan -- are set to return within the week.