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Despite being greeted by a steady snow, airmen from the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, happily walk off a chartered jet Wednesday night. About 70 of the squadron’s airmen returned from a four-month deployment.

Despite being greeted by a steady snow, airmen from the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, happily walk off a chartered jet Wednesday night. About 70 of the squadron’s airmen returned from a four-month deployment. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Despite being greeted by a steady snow, airmen from the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, happily walk off a chartered jet Wednesday night. About 70 of the squadron’s airmen returned from a four-month deployment.

Despite being greeted by a steady snow, airmen from the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, happily walk off a chartered jet Wednesday night. About 70 of the squadron’s airmen returned from a four-month deployment. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Master Sgt. Irwin Raquedan, a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning shop superintendent with 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, looks through a sea of bags after returning Wednesday night.

Master Sgt. Irwin Raquedan, a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning shop superintendent with 35th Civil Engineer Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, looks through a sea of bags after returning Wednesday night. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Staff Sgt. Adam Watson of the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron embraces his 2-year-old daughter, Kenna, and wife, Ashley, Wednesday night at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Watson was among the 70 civil engineer airmen returning from northern Kuwait.

Staff Sgt. Adam Watson of the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron embraces his 2-year-old daughter, Kenna, and wife, Ashley, Wednesday night at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Watson was among the 70 civil engineer airmen returning from northern Kuwait. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Seventy airmen from the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron tramped through the snow Wednesday night in tan battle-dress uniforms to embrace their loved ones for the first time in more than four months.

It was downright cold, but after life in the desert Misawa felt like Kansas after Dorothy’s stint in Oz.

“It’s good to be home,” airmen uttered to each other as their boots hit the frozen ground.

Shortly after 7 p.m., they disembarked from a chartered flight outside Hangar 949 after an arduous journey home that took them from Kuwait to northern Japan via Ireland, Alaska and Yokota Air Base.

“It’s amazing; it’s quite overwhelming,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher LeBlanc after reuniting with his wife, Amanda, and two young daughters.

LeBlanc said the airmen were supposed to leave Kuwait in early January. The date was later pushed to Jan. 13, and “we didn’t leave until Monday,” he said.

Scheduling priorities delayed the flight, military officials said, keeping the anxious airmen and their families in limbo for several days.

Jet lag and anxiety, however, quickly melted into elation and relief as the airmen received a hero’s welcome inside a hangar warmed by eager families, a huge food spread and heating fans on full blast.

Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing commander, shook their hands and awarded many a Global War on Terrorism expeditionary medal.

“I’m absolutely proud of everybody for the job they did,” he said.

The airmen — a mix of firefighters; engineers; heating, ventilation, air-conditioning system experts; and readiness and operations troops — left in early September for Alial-Salem Air Base in northern Kuwait. They were tagged to deploy as part of an Aerospace Expeditionary Force cycle in support of the ongoing war on terrorism.

Senior Airman Ellis Cobb, 23, an electrician, said the best part about being back was “we don’t have to work for two weeks.” The returning airmen earned two weeks of leave for their time downrange.

“Just to make it back, that’s a good thing,” Cobb added, “and to not have anybody get hurt too seriously.”

For Cobb, the Kuwait deployment followed a previous one to Tallil Air Base, Iraq.

“This one was a lot easier, a lot more relaxed — you didn’t have to worry about getting shot,” he said.

But that’s what Cobb’s buddy, Airman 1st Class Antonio Marsh, 19, was prepared for. Kuwait was his maiden deployment: “I thought I was going to be on the front lines, with weapons in my hand, taking care of the enemy. It was completely different. We just got out there to do our jobs to build the base into a better condition.”

The airmen repaired more than 1,600 heaters and air conditioners, maintained airfield lighting and fire alarms, spread gravel, moved barriers, renovated office spaces and installed latrines, among other jobs that kept them busy every day.

Airman 1st Class Ebonni Brooks, 25, a civil engineer readiness apprentice, grinned as she described her first deployment since, she said, it was so much better than she expected.

“I had a really good time. The friendships and the lessons learned over there far outweighed what I imagined,” she said.

Though she felt safe, Brooks said she continually reminded herself to stay alert.

“Learning to not let your guard down is a big thing,” she said. “You have to realize that you’re still in a war environment, and that at any time, anything can happen.”

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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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