RAF MILDENHALL — First they evacuated the elderly, the infants, the infirm and the confused. Then they helped secure American diplomatic assets. And when the dust settled, they even found time to keep their critical skills sharp with impromptu training exercises.

And now they are finally home.

Nearly four months after members of the 352nd Special Operations Group roared into action to support the evacuation of Americans from war-torn Lebanon, the last wave of personnel and assets returned to England earlier this month.

“We were called upon and on a moment’s notice were able to put into motion a mission that really helped assure the American people of American resolve to help our citizens in need,” said 352nd Commander Col. Brad Webb, who served as the air and ground commander of the mission from Aug. 23 until its end.

“This was something that could have turned into a bad news story very quickly, but it ended up just the opposite and we’re very proud of that.”

Webb is not alone.

A wave of increased morale and a renewed esprit de corps has swept across the 352nd as members reintegrate with their squadrons here at RAF Mildenhall, several SOG members said.

From the pilots who flew hundreds of evacuees out of Lebanon to the combat controllers and para-rescuemen who provided humanitarian support, the special operations airmen are enjoying the feeling of a successful mission with quantifiable results.

“Our primary mission is to [place] the good guys behind enemy lines and get out safely. And we may not know the results of those [missions] for weeks, if at all,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Leick, 38, of San Antonio. “The effect of this mission was tangible and it was immediate. It was very rewarding.”

An engineer instructor on the MH-53M Pave Low helicopter with the 21st Special Operations Squadron, Leick helped evacuate victims of Hurricane Katrina a year earlier when he served at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

“These are obviously tragedies that we would rather not see happen,” Leick said. “But we don’t view ourselves as lifesavers or heroes. We’re just normal Joes doing our jobs.”

That job differed vastly from what the special operations airmen have done recently. Working in a combat zone was nothing new, but watching out for incoming fire while simultaneously caring for distressed evacuees was a novel process.

“I had to look out the side [of the helicopter] one minute for an incoming RPG and turn around to take make sure a 3-year-old would not run out the back of the helicopter the next,” said Tech. Sgt. Ross Funches, 33, of Pensacola, Fla. “You had to be able to switch back and forth from each mindset.”

But now all the troops involved in the mission are back in the United Kingdom training to take part in the unit’s ongoing deployments or any future need for rapid military assistance abroad.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome of the mission,” Webb said. “And I couldn’t be more proud of our guys’ performance.”

By the numbers

352nd Special Operations Group contribution to Joint Task Force Lebanon:

Days of operation — 76

Sorties flown — 215

Total hours flown — 780

Evacuees rescued — 519

Total cargo flown — 95,000 pounds

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