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Staff Sgt. Willie Jones, right, listens to music over headphones while Staff Sgt. Willie Roberts catches up on sleep aboard a C-17 enroute to Iraq. At far left, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Karen Renaud-Williams, part of the air crew, thumbs through a copy of Stars and Stripes.

Staff Sgt. Willie Jones, right, listens to music over headphones while Staff Sgt. Willie Roberts catches up on sleep aboard a C-17 enroute to Iraq. At far left, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Karen Renaud-Williams, part of the air crew, thumbs through a copy of Stars and Stripes. (Rick Scavetta / S&S)

BALAD, Iraq — Less than a half-hour after leaving Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, on a Sunday evening flight to Iraq, Maj. Jeff Drake heard a female computer voice on his C-17 cargo plane say, “manifold fail.”

Behind him in the cargo hold, three tired soldiers had barely stuffed in their foam rubber earplugs when Drake announced, “Sorry, but we have a mechanical problem and we’ll be heading back to Frankfurt.”

The soldiers, who all left Iraq for family emergencies and found themselves at home for Christmas, were now enduring the long trip back to Southwest Asia.

“That’s OK,” joked Maj. Joe Cox, an operations officer assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit. “I didn’t really want to go back to Iraq.”

Cox, who left Iraq on Dec. 7 for a family emergency in Ozark, Ala., was trying to make it back to his unit. Checking his watch, Cox told fellow passenger 1st Lt. David Masteller that he would be celebrating his 40th birthday in a few hours.

Masteller, who had returned home because of a death in his family, said a broken plane was a first for him.

“I’ve traveled all over,” Masteller said. “But I’ve never been on a plane that broke and had to turn around.”

Sitting nearby, Staff Sgt. Willie Jones, 31, simply put back on his headphones and relaxed to R&B tunes as the massive cargo plane banked sideways. Jones had been home in Jennings, La., where for the first time he held his 8-month-old son, Xavier.

“I was elated with a mix of emotions,” Jones said. “It’s hard to describe just how I felt.”

An ammunition specialist assigned to the 142nd Corps Support Battalion at Camp Ridgeway, Jones returned home to see a sick relative. Despite his family’s situation, he was glad to have Christmas at home, Jones said.

“It wasn’t the gifts to unwrap,” Jones said of his holiday home. “It was having everyone around, family and friends.”

Back in the cockpit, messages flashed on Drake’s screen, as the plane isolated the problem. While the crew began standard troubleshooting checklists, Drake knew he had to turn the plane back to Frankfurt.

The Boeing-built C-17 named “Spirit of Strom Thurmond” had sprung a leak in a hot-air manifold. A minor problem, but one that had to be checked, Drake said.

Its crew, Air Force Reserve troops from the 728th Airlift Squadron, left McChord Air Force Base, Wash., on Christmas Eve. The crew had already made one trip to Iraq, said Senior Master Sgt. Jim Masura.

At Rhein-Main, Airman 1st Class T.J. Reyes, 20, a crew chief from Tampa Bay, Fla., was checking e-mail when Tech Sgt. Shannon Conard rushed in saying, “We need you to park a plane.”

With the amount of planes flying into Frankfurt, fellow crew chief Staff Sgt. James Collins, 23, of Hot Springs, Ark., was not surprised when the C-17 returned.

“It stays pretty busy here,” Collins said. “The airflow we get in here is higher than anywhere in the world as far as military cargo goes.”

Firefighters dressed in shiny metallic suits met the plane on the tarmac. Reyes, Collins, and a team of crew chiefs boarded to inspect the problem.

Meanwhile, the sleepy-eyed soldiers sauntered back to the passenger terminal, hoping to find some coffee or cookies. The troops bumped into a medical response team headed for Bam, Iraq.

The U.S. government team — a volunteer crew of civilian doctors from Boston — was gearing up to treat thousands of Iranians injured in last week’s earthquake.

Masteller chatted with Capt. Chuck Beebe about hunting and redneck bars in rural Sullivan County, Pa., from where they both hail.

A couple of hours passed before an airman arrived with good news; the soldier’s flight was back on.

Napping through the four-hour flight, Cox awoke at 5:30 a.m. to the funky smell of an Iraqi breeze wafting through the cargo hold’s rear ramp. He had turned 40.

Eerie lights cast a green glow on the dust on Balad’s tarmac as Cox and Masteller discussed what motivated them to return to the combat zone.

Like most soldiers, it’s not the pay or the military orders that pressed them to fly back just before New Year’s Eve. It was their dedication to the mission, a yearlong endeavor for most.

“I just don’t want to leave things left undone Iraq,” Cox said.

“There’s still so much for us to do in Iraq,” Masteller agreed.

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