Big homecoming weekend at Shaw

The (Sumter) ItemSeptember 20, 2013 

A father holds his child at the McEntire Joint National Guard Base after the South Carolina Air National Guard's 169th Fighter Wing returns from a deployment as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com Buy Photo

Five months is a long time to wait for a loved one to return from overseas. What's another hour?

Family and friends of the Shaw Air Force Base airmen returning from a deployment to South Korea groaned Thursday night when it was announced over the public announcement system of a base air hangar that the 55th Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit would arrive an hour later than expected.

Small children waited anxiously for the plane to touch down, newborns slept before the first appearance of their fathers, and women dressed in high heels teetered on the runway while their husbands and boyfriends flew in from the other side of the world.

About 400 airmen are returning to Shaw this weekend from Osan Air Base in South Korea, with the bulk of them touching down shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday. On the ground, their loved ones waited expectantly.

Claire Garibaldi drove to Columbia from Savannah to be here for her boyfriend, Senior Airman Michael Shaner, then came to Shaw with Martha Granados, who dates Shaner's roommate, Senior Airman Jarryd Burke.

"We met through them," Garibaldi said.

Granados was overflowing with emotion to see Burke for the first time since his deployment. "It's hard to describe," Granados said. "Anxious but excited."

Garibaldi was so eager to see Shaner, she actually flew to Osan last month to surprise him. "He knew I was coming. He wasn't supposed to know when, but ..." she said, and indicated Granados. "He came outside the gate, and I was standing there waiting on him."

Nine-year-old twins Will and Marianna Brogden sat waving small American flags waiting for their father, Staff Sgt. Joshua Brogden. They've waited five months to go hunting and fishing with their dad again. Marianna summed up her sense of excitement.

"It feels awesome," she said.

Elsewhere, Lyndsi Williamson helped her 4-year-old daughter, Peyton, color in a cardboard sign welcoming her dad, Staff Sgt. Joshua Williamson, home.

"We have a better sign waiting at home, as soon as he opens the door," Williamson said. "It's been tough, especially being pregnant. It's our first boy."

The Williamsons will only have a short time to settle back in before the family follows Sgt. Williamson on his next deployment to Alaska.

"And we just bought a house," she said, "but we'll probably take a trip to Florida and Tennessee now."

Eventually, the squadron's flight landed on a runway illuminated by the full moon and slowly taxied to the stairs leading down to the crowd. Then after a flurry of shouts, hugs and kisses, it was over, and both returning airmen and their families felt like they were heading home for the first time.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Ospina threw his bags down and embraced his wife, Heather, and looked admiringly at the signs held by his children Mason, 7, and Hunter, 4.

"It's been a long five months," he said. "Now we're just going to hang out as a family."

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