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Misawa airmen – some smiling already - marched down the stairs of their aircraft after landing Friday at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The airmen were deployed to Iraq and other hot spots in the Middle East for four months.

Misawa airmen – some smiling already - marched down the stairs of their aircraft after landing Friday at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The airmen were deployed to Iraq and other hot spots in the Middle East for four months. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Misawa airmen – some smiling already - marched down the stairs of their aircraft after landing Friday at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The airmen were deployed to Iraq and other hot spots in the Middle East for four months.

Misawa airmen – some smiling already - marched down the stairs of their aircraft after landing Friday at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The airmen were deployed to Iraq and other hot spots in the Middle East for four months. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Returning airmen are greeted by base leaders Friday morning at Misawa Air Base.

Returning airmen are greeted by base leaders Friday morning at Misawa Air Base. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Airman 1st Class Junita Moore, left, waves to someone while walking into Hangar 949 Friday at Misawa Air Base, Japan, with Airman 1st Class Katelyn Behringer. Both women are with the 35th Maintenance Squadron.

Airman 1st Class Junita Moore, left, waves to someone while walking into Hangar 949 Friday at Misawa Air Base, Japan, with Airman 1st Class Katelyn Behringer. Both women are with the 35th Maintenance Squadron. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Staff Sgt. Aaron Mullins, 35th Maintenance Squadron, embraces his wife, Hannah, and 3-yearr-old son, Domenic, on Friday after returning to Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Mullins, 35th Maintenance Squadron, embraces his wife, Hannah, and 3-yearr-old son, Domenic, on Friday after returning to Misawa Air Base, Japan. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — They should have been weary from the 16-hour flight, not to mention the more than four months spent in a war zone, where the mission can take precedence over even sleep.

But Misawa’s airmen nearly bounced off the plane Friday morning, exchanging high-fives, hugs, smooches and plenty of smiles with those waiting in the rain for their return.

“I’m feeling great. It’s wonderful,” said Tech. Sgt. Robert Chewning, 35, of being home.

The approximately 250 airmen who poured into Hangar 949 represented the largest group of Misawa’s deployed airmen to come home, just about closing the loop on the 35th Fighter Wing’s commitment to the current Air and Space Expeditionary Force rotation cycle.

Misawa this summer deployed about 700 airmen for AEF 7 and 8. Most came back Thursday and Friday.

The rest were expected to return over the weekend.

The exception is security forces and explosive ordnance technicians, who are on longer, six-month deployments, base officials said.

Misawa also has its F-16s back. The planes departed in January with the 14th Fighter Squadron and stayed through the 13th Fighter Squadron’s rotation.

The jets arrived in three formations Thursday, steered home by ecstatic pilots.

“When we first broke through the clouds … I saw green, Misawa, I couldn’t stop smiling,” said Capt. Matt Belle, 28, of Baton Rouge, La. “I won’t stop smiling for the next few weeks.”

Those who stepped off the more spacious aircraft Friday were for the most part maintainers, who toiled in the heat and dust of Iraq’s Balad Air Base to keep Misawa’s F-16s and pilots in the fight.

Col. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the 35th Fighter Wing and Misawa base commander, said he was proud of everyone — and relieved to have them back.

“It is a dangerous environment,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we have everybody home.”

Col. Cedric George, the 35th Maintenance Group commander, said many of the deployed airmen “had never been to war before,” and yet “they surpassed all of our expectations.”

One of those first-timers was Airman 1st Class Ingram Smith, a 35th Maintenance Squadron ammunitions specialist.

The deployment “wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I thought it would be like what you see on TV,” he said.

Most challenging was keeping up with the mission while constantly staying vigilant, said Tech. Sgt. Christen Whitney, an assistant section chief with the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

“It was continuous ops, but we got into a rhythm, a routine, day in and day out,” he said, adding that his goal was to accomplish the mission, while looking out for his troops and himself.

“Our mission became each other,” he said, making sure “we came back home.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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