By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 25, 2012 1:50 AM
Capt. Melissa Smith, left, and Toby Beatty look at the sign the 4-year-old made for his father, Maj. John Beatty, one of the dozens of members of the 335th Fighter Squadron who returned home Friday.
Jacob Mitchell, 6, waits for his father, David's, F-15E Strike Eagle to land, along with his mother, Jennifer, and sister, Autumn.
She didn't say much as she waited -- the blonde-haired little girl holding up a homemade sign that read, "I love you Daddy."
But when a group of F-15Es rattled one of the hangars on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the look on Madison Bean's face affirmed what her mother, Jennifer, had acknowledged moments earlier.
"They've missed him," the 3-year-old's mother said, looking down at her daughter and two sons. "I mean, it's been seven months."
So Madison opened her eyes a little wider when the sound of fighter jets streaking overhead finally reached her.
She smiled and lifted her simple sign above her shoulders.
She must have sensed her father, Tom, was among those in the clouds.
She knew, even at such a young age, that a reunion was in the making.
More than a dozen 4th Fighter Wing aviators -- and the Strike Eagles they have, for the past several months, commanded in the skies over Afghanistan -- returned from war Friday afternoon.
But family members were not the only ones waiting to welcome them back to Goldsboro.
Dozens of their comrades converged on the flight line, too.
And so did community leaders -- men like Military Affairs Committee member J.B. Price who said he never misses an opportunity to thank his heroes.
"I never could get in the military ... so I have always supported Seymour Johnson," he said. "I'm the guy who looks up in the sky and says, 'Thank God they're here.' Without them, we wouldn't be free."
Bryson Roberts spent much of the afternoon in his mother's arms -- posing for photographs with his 4-year-old sister, Naomi, listening as person after person talked about how cute his haircut was.
But when the crowd started cheering as the first few jets taxied by, his expression didn't change much.
He didn't join Naomi as she danced and jumped up and down.
He might not have even known his father, Bryant, could have been one of the Air Force officers waving from the cockpit.
At 15 months old, he is far too young to understand all the Chiefs accomplished during their stint at Bagram Airfield.
But Col. Patrick Doherty has an idea of just what the men and women under his command brought to the fight.
He has been fielding calls from combatant commanders all week, he said Friday.
So he showed up along the flight line with his wife, Dee Dee, to be among the first to welcome them home -- to thank them for ensuring Seymour Johnson Strike Eagles provided an uninterrupted blanket of air support to Coalition forces fighting on the ground.
"It's a great day," the colonel said. "I would never miss this."
The homecoming celebrations are expected to continue Monday morning, as more than 300 airmen are scheduled to return to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. For complete coverage of the event, see Monday's print edition and follow us on Twitter. @newsargus