Balloons and banners, hugs and handshakes greeted the 200 members of the 55th Wing as they stepped off of buses and into an Offutt Air Force Base hangar filled with smiling loved ones early Friday afternoon.
After a dozen years of war, the public has grown accustomed to the trappings of military homecomings. But for the families that live through the cycles of separation and homecoming, each return is as fresh and joyous as the first.
“It's the greatest feeling ever,” said a captain named Jon.
Their intelligence and surveillance jobs are so sensitive that the Air Force won't allow the returnees or their families to give their last names. Neither could they reveal what southwest Asian country they flew home from aboard the chartered Boeing 777.
They were returning from a 90-day deployment.
Thanks to email, Skype and FaceTime, the separation isn't as vast as it was even a few years ago.
“With today's technology, you can keep in touch,” said Kevin, 31, a captain who was completing his fifth deployment. “My first was five or six years ago. Back then, it was calling cards.”
Still, with his latest deployment, he missed his daughter's first birthday, and her first steps.
“It's difficult,” Kevin said. “She started walking while I was away.”
It's also hard for the spouse, who must hold things together at home while trying not to worry about a loved one in harm's way.
“It's been hard — but I can only imagine what it's like for him, being away,” said Mary, Jon's wife.
She carried their infant son, a flag and a sign that read “Welcome home daddy — we missed you!”
Somehow she missed Jon when he got off the bus. He walked up from behind and tapped her on the shoulder. They fell into a happy, tearful hug.
“I was standing here with my sign, and I completely missed him!” Mary said.
Some dads found it fitting that this reunion came so close to Father's Day.
“It's great,” Jon said. “When you're deployed, you don't really have a concept of what day it is.”
They certainly remember now.
“It's pretty awesome,” said Pete, a captain who is also a first-year dad. “This is the best Father's Day present I could have gotten.”
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