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RAF MILDENHALL, England — The smile on Col. Donald Lustig’s face was as bright and wide as the English sky Wednesday when he welcomed home members of the 100th Air Refueling Wing from a mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Wonderful,” the wing commander said when asked how it felt to have his people home.

With the arrival of a KC-135 Stratotanker at about midday Wednesday, the 100th’s participation in the war on Iraq was effectively over. More than 200 wing members had spent nearly three months at an air base in the Mediterranean region providing airborne fill-ups for thirsty aircraft involved in the war with Iraq.

Along with the 319th Air Refueling Wing from Grand Forks AFB, N.D., they formed the 401st Air Expeditionary Wing. About 1,800 servicemembers and more than 30 tanker aircraft made up the wing. The location cannot be disclosed because of political sensitivities in the host country.

Most of the members returned last week, but the final couple of dozen arrived on a sunny day to be greeted by smiling spouses and gleeful children.

“Fifty-five days,” said Kellene Burgess shortly after her husband, Staff Sgt. William Burgess kissed and hugged her and their three daughters.

“The girls wrote it down. Every day, they’d put another number on the calendar.”

Halley Burgess, 9, had a hug and smile for her father.

“I’ve been really anxious and I could hardly sleep last night,” she said.

Burgess, part of the 100th Maintenance Squadron, was happy to be home, but glad to have the opportunity to participate.

“This has probably been one of the best TDYs,” he said.

One reason, he said, was the mission itself, which he said was a worthwhile effort. Another, he added, was the ability to stay in touch with his wife and family via cell phones and e-mails, technology not always available on previous deployments.

Tech Sgt. Avery Jones and his wife, Michelle, went 87 days between hugs. But the member of the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron said he was prepared for a longer separation.

“Our orders were cut for 180 days,” he said. “This is a bonus. Big time.”

Capt. Shane Balken, the public affairs chief for the 100th ARW and the expeditionary wing, said the tempo during the war was high.

“It was nuts,” he said. “They were doing up to 50 sorties a day. It was a machine. They had it down to a science.”

Some aircraft, he said, were flying four or five missions a day, switching crews and getting their own fill-up while on the ground.

Lustig, who met the airplane to shake hands and congratulate the returning airmen, said the wing still has a few members deployed around the world. In fact, he said, some people who expected to fly back to England on Wednesday were pulled from the return home for new assignments.

“Instead of coming this way, they went the other way,” he said.

Lustig said the deployed members were kept motivated because they could see the results of their efforts on the battlefield. That motivates everyone, he said, from the people preparing meals to the people driving air crews to their airplanes.

Still smiling, he said, “They did a great job.”

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