ARLINGTON, Va. — Four airmen are coming home from Iraq with a little something extra beyond the war stories and hugs and kisses for families.

They are returning with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

While conducting air-refueling operations over Iraq on April 7, a four-person crew took their KC-135 into airspace said to be the second most aggressively defended by Iraqi anti-air defense.

Their mission involved refueling aircraft searching for a downed F-15E Strike Eagle near Tikrit. The two downed airmen were found, but only to be added to the list of 138 U.S. war deaths.

An outcome that’s bittersweet.

“I feel very honored to be” a Distinguished Flying Cross recipient, said Maj. Brian Neitz, the aircraft commander and mission pilot. “And it’s very humbling. But I feel undeserving of it.”

The four crewmembers, deployed from the 916th Air Refueling Squadron from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross medal include Neitz, co-pilot Capt. Nathan Howard, navigator Capt. Tricia Paulsen-Howe, and boom operator Tech Sgt. Jim Pittman.

They had been flying in an area not previously cleared for refuelers, providing for F-15 and F-16 fighters that “thirsted” for fuel.

The DFC is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by heroism or extraordinary achievement while flying and by completing a voluntary action above and beyond the call of duty.

Howard and Paulsen-Howe were not interviewed Tuesday. The other members of the refueling crew spoke with reporters at the Pentagon as the crew traversed the Atlantic Ocean in their KC-135R Stratotanker on their way home from war.

Back on April 7, heavy cloud coverage prevented the crew from seeing whether they were being attacked from the ground — and kept their aircraft hidden from enemy eyes, said Pittman, 33, an airman for 13 years.

“The weather was on our side,” he said.

When daylight broke, they managed to see the ground through pockets and holes in the cloud deck. “We did not see any ground fire,” Pittman said. “And we’re very thankful we did not.”

Flying into hostile areas is part of the training refueler crews receive, said Neitz and Lt. Col. Jackie Van Ovost, who was not part of the mission but was piloting the KC-135R home Tuesday as the crew spoke with reporters.

The heavy operational tempo and being away from home was the hardest challenge for Van Ovost, who last saw her husband and children when she left the United States on Dec. 7, she said.

The four crewmembers who received the Distinguished Flying Cross were already awarded their medals in a ceremony overseas.

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