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Fighter squadron returns to Oceana Naval Air Station with firsts and lasts

Lt. Colton Rainey watches for the first time as his son, Bennett, stands by himself as the “Blueblasters” of Strike Fighter Squadron 34 return home to NAS Oceana on Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

STEVE EARLEY/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT VIA AP

By JOANNE KIMBERLIN | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 12, 2018

OCEANA NAVAL AIR STATION, Va. — They came in low, rocketing over the tree tops, a diamond of gun-metal gray fighter jets – the last of their kind, returning from a historic deployment, with a thunder that rattled the bones.

Wednesday’s homecoming of the “Blueblasters” Strike Fighter Squadron 34 was the final touchdown for its aircraft. The squadron has been flying the last of the Legacy Hornets, the only 10 remaining F/A-18C jets in the naval air force.

They’ve been on a three-month deployment with the USS Carl Vinson, which included a port call in Vietnam – the first by an American aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War.

“Most of our guys weren’t even born yet when the war was going on,” said squadron Cmdr. Perry Solomon.

To prepare for their visit, they holed-up in the Vinson’s ready-room and watched Ken Burn’s documentary series, “The Vietnam War.”

“We watched it all,” Solomon said.

Vietnam was its own kind of war – bitterly unpopular at home, 58,000 Americans killed in a foreign civil war, fighting for the side that ultimately lost.

More than 40 years later, wounds can still run deep for aging veterans and the families whose loved ones never came home. But improved relations between the U.S. and today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam are “important for stability in the region,” Solomon said. “That’s why we went.”

The aviators went ashore in Danang in March, and spent four days doing the meet-and-greet.

“The people were very warm,” Solomon said, “and the food was great.”

The Blueblasters left the San Diego-based Vinson on Tuesday morning – 400 miles off the California coast – then hopscotched their 20-year-old jets across the country, back to Oceana. One broke down along the way, but showed up shortly after the others.

The squadron will now catch up to the rest of the Navy, switching to F/A-18E Super Hornets.

At the hanger, family and friends gathered with welcome-home signs and ice buckets of beer. It was specially labeled for the retiring jets: “Mission complete.”

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