Just in time for Thanksgiving, 13 airmen with the 188th Security Forces Squadron returned home late Wednesday after being deployed to the Middle East for more than six months.
A crowd of nearly 100 eager family members, loved ones and friends of the airmen waited in anticipation at the Fort Smith Regional Airport. Several young children scurried about the lobby, despite it being well past 10 p.m.
A large group made up those awaiting the return of Master Sgt. David Passen of Kibler from his third deployment. Passen has served in the Army and Air National Guard for more than 20 years, his family said, and was named the state’s 2012 Officer of the Year after he was the first on the scene following a shooting at the Crawford County Courthouse the previous year.
Passen’s mother, Gwen Woodhull, said it never gets any easier each time her son is deployed.
“It’s been very long, but I’m very proud of him,” Woodhull said. “I just accept the fact that that’s what he does and what he wants to do. I worry and pray a lot, but I’m glad he’s coming home now. It’s been long enough.”
Passen’s father, Mike Passen, who spent 10 years in the Army and is himself a Vietnam veteran, said his son is part of a proud military family. David Passen’s son, Blake, also serves with the Air National Guard, and his other son, Cody, is thinking of joining the Marines, Mike Passen said.
“It’s not just military service. It’s community — it’s serving your home,” Mike Passen said.
Passen’s wife of nine years, Angie Passen, said when her husband is deployed, life at home can be hectic, what with their six children — the two boys, plus daughters Kenzie, Cala, Taylor and Levi.
“That’s his job. That’s what he’s supposed to do,” Angie Passen said. “You just do it.”
Brenda Draper of Little Rock and Angela Hayes of DeWitt waited while sitting near each other in the airport lobby. Draper was waiting on her boyfriend of two years, Mike Rico, while Hayes waited for her husband of seven years, J.D. Hayes. Both men were returning home from their first deployment.
Draper said she and Rico have balanced a long-distance relationship, with her living in Little Rock and him living in Fayetteville, on top of Rico’s busy service schedule. The couple found relief in being able to communicate by phone, text or email nearly every day of Rico’s deployment, Draper said.
“That helped out a lot, because it would’ve been a lot harder not being able to talk to him that much,” Draper said. “I didn’t have to stress about it or worry, and he was in a safe location, so I knew that he was OK the whole time.”
Angela Hayes said she made the 4 ½-hour drive from DeWitt to spend the couple’s anniversary Saturday with her husband — the first time they’ve been able to do so since their first wedding anniversary.
Angela Hayes said the couple didn’t have big plans for their anniversary, but she was just glad he was back.
Staff Sgt. Quincy Brett Cherry of Waldron returned from his third deployment to his wife, Sunny Cherry, of nine years, and their 3-year-old son, Ajay, along with several other members of the family.
Sunny Cherry said Ajay got to talk to his dad while he was deployed, albeit sparingly.
“He wakes up every day wanting his daddy,” Sunny Cherry said. “He says, ‘I miss my daddy, I miss my daddy.’”
Sunny Cherry said her husband doesn’t get much time at home, so when she learned that the airmen’s plane was delayed Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore, it was not welcomed news.
“With the first deployment it was worse, because he actually got stranded in Baltimore because of a winter storm and they had to drive home,” Sunny Cherry said. “So, this is actually more exciting because we’re getting to see him get off the plane.”
Just after 11 p.m., the airmen walked through the gate to the elation of the crowd. Hugs, kisses and tears abounded before everyone headed for the door to begin their holidays.
“It feels great, it’s been a long 200 days,” David Passen said, adding that he planned to go home and take a nap before sitting down for Thanksgiving.
When asked what Brett Cherry planned to do first, Cherry held his son, Ajay, and said, “Not letting him and his momma go.”
Cherry’s father, Neil Cherry, himself an Army veteran, noted how fortunate the airmen and their families were to be able to spend the holiday together.
“It couldn’t be a better Thanksgiving than what we’re having right now with these men and women coming home,” Neil Cherry said. “There’s so much to be thankful for.”