03/16/11 — Rockets are home

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Rockets are home

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 16, 2011 1:46 PM

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Leslie Worzalla and her daughter, Laney, 3, wait for their loved one, Staff Sgt. Eric Worzalla, to return, along with his squadron mates from his fourth deployment to Afghanistan.

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Approximately 1,000 friends and family members welcomed their heroes home Tuesday night at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. More than 300 airmen returned after serving in Afghanistan.

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Tech Sgt. Corey Harlan hugs Elijah Harlan, left, and Tyler Carawan upon his return from Afghanistan at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Hailey Skocz stuck her tongue through the empty spaces left when baby teeth were finally lost and started laughing.

Her eyes lit up when the "Tooth Fairy" was mentioned -- when her mother, Jennifer, talked about the toys left by the pixie in exchange for the little girl's offerings.

It was clear that for this particular 6-year-old, something as simple as growing up meant the world.

So as the aircraft carrying Hailey's father, Ryan, made its way ever closer to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base flight line Tuesday evening, her energy level escalated.

"I'm gonna run and jump and give him the biggest hug ever," the little girl said. "And I can run really fast. Wanna see?"

Jennifer smiled, watching as her daughter sprinted behind a hangar -- an undersized American flag in each hand.

"She keeps telling me she's gonna beat me to him," Hailey's mother said. "And she will. I mean look at me, I'm in heels."

More than 300 members of the 4th Fighter Wing's 336th Rocketeers returned to Goldsboro just after midnight -- marking the end of a six-month tour at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, that saw the unit ensure Seymour Johnson F-15E Strike Eagles provided 24/7 overwatch for Coalition forces on the ground.

And their commander, Col. Patrick Doherty, said each of his airmen performed at an "incredible" level during the first half-year tour in the history of the fighter wing.

"They were incredibly disciplined, and we have a lot to be proud of," the colonel said, adding that the Rocketeers "shattered" the air power records they set during their 2009 deployment. "There is no better feeling."

Many of those loved ones who turned out for the homecoming -- roughly 1,000 family members, friends and comrades were on hand -- agreed that watching their particular hero walk toward them after months of separation was one of the highlights of military life.

Like Leslie Worzalla and her 3-year-old daughter, Laney, who were among the first to find a spot along the barrier meant to keep the celebration from erupting into chaos.

Laney giggled when asked if she made the sign sitting next to her -- one that read "Welcome Home Daddy."

"Yes," she said, pointing to the stickers used to create it. "It's really sticky."

Leslie smiled.

"I found that the easiest way is stickers," she said.

And the easy way, she said, was certainly welcomed after months of only seeing her husband, Eric, once a week on a computer screen.

But Leslie said the advancement in technology made this particular deployment a little less difficult.

"She's been able to see his face every week," she said, looking down at Laney.

And Jennifer said the same thing more than an hour later.

"It actually helped our marriage," she said. "We could sit on the computer and actually talk about things."

But whether or not the experience of being without a loved one brought with it hardship didn't seem to matter when the doors of the aircraft that brought so many home safely opened.

Hailey started jumping up and down when the crowd began cheering -- her eyes wide open, hands covering her mouth.

And when she saw her father approaching, that little girl made good on the pledge she had made over and over again to her mother -- hugging her hero before anyone else got the chance.

Similar scenes were unfolding all around them.

Mothers wiped tears from their eyes as the young men they still, in many ways, see as children marked the end of a war zone tour.

Girlfriends, wives, boy-friends and husbands jumped into their love ones' arms before sharing passionate kisses and long embraces.

And then there was Hailey who, with those flags in her hand and that smile on her face -- standing next to the man she only knows "was at work for a long time" -- looked up at her 2-year-old brother, Christian, resting in their father's arms.

"That's my daddy," she said. "He's here. He's home."