When little Anallyse Cooper took her first step a couple months ago, her father was thrilled. But he had to watch it on Skype from an air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, shortly after Staff Sgt. Frank Cooper touched down at McEntire Joint National Guard Base after a four month deployment, he was looking forward to seeing her walk in person.
“I’m meeting a new baby right now!” he said, hugging his wife, Ashley, of Irmo, and making Anallyse giggle with a funny face and a tickle under her chin. “This is a dream come true.”
Cooper, a mechanic, was one of 300 members of the S.C. Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing who had just returned from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The airmen were ground support troops for 18 fighter jets, which are expected to arrive today.
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The wing, nicknamed the Swamp Foxes, deployed a record 18 F-16 fighter jets and close to 400 personnel – including pilots, maintenance specialists and support staff – in April. It amounts to the largest deployment of the S.C. Air Guard since Operation Desert Storm more than 20 years ago.
About 600 family members and friends gathered in a huge hangar at the base. There were no bands or speeches, just a big yellow ribbon stretched across the tarmac that was cut to allow airmen and families to rush together in one big happy scrum of love.
“These guys just got off a 20-hour flight,” said Col. Mike Hudson, the wing commander, who has been deployed eight times. “They don’t want to hear me bloviate. The families need to take them home right now and make them happy.”
One of those families was that of Senior Airman Eric Hoyle. Five members of his family drove two days and 1,000 miles from Houston and joined his girlfriend, Alexandra Prater, of Sumter, to welcome him home with a big – Texas big – sign.
They came in two cars – one a black 2012 Chevy Mustang that Hoyle had purchased but never had a chance to drive.
Eric had no trouble finding them as he got off the bus on the tarmac.
“That’s my family,” he said. “They kind of stand out.”
As he approached the gleaming new ride in the hangar parking lot, he shouted: “That’s my baby!” Then Alexandra jumped on his back. “And that’s my baby, too!”
The Swamp Foxes provided close air support – bombing enemy troops, equipment and bases – for coalition troops on the ground. While in Afghanistan, the unit flew more than 2,200 sorties, totaling more than 9,400 combat hours.
All of the wing’s personnel are returning home safely.
“It’s awesome to have everybody back safe,” Hudson said. “They are very well-trained, but you never know what might happen. When you are flying jets 24-7 in all kinds of weather you never know what might happen.”
This was the wing’s largest deployment since Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the fourth major deployment of its F-16s since 2002. In 2002, the wing deployed to Qatar in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and flew more than 200 combat missions in the early days of the Afghanistan war.
In 2003, the 169th deployed to Qatar in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and flew more than 400 combat missions. Then, in 2010, elements of the 169th deployed again to support operations in Iraq.
Hudson said the support of the families, civilian employers and the community is a huge help to the airmen. It “allowed our Swamp Foxes to focus confidently on the mission at hand,” he said.
One of those family members was Evren Seter, a native of Turkey who sat by herself in the hanger with her 7-month-old son, Arden, in a stroller. She seemed nervous.
She married Tech Sgt. Robert Seter of North Carolina in 2007 while the Air Force reservist was stationed there. The couple, now living in Sumter, had Arden in February. In March Robert was deployed.
Since then, the couple had spoken only once a week, on Tuesdays, by Skype.
“I’m very excited,” she said.
As the ribbon was cut and the families mingled, Evren searched vainly and a bit desperately through the crowd for her husband. Finally he appeared in the pack, one of the final families to reunite.
Robert was exhausted and seemed a bit stunned as he embraced his son, now a much different child than he had left.
“I’m speechless,” he said.
“He’s tired,” Evren said, touching his face.