After six months flying over the skies of Afghanistan and after losing one of their own just three weeks before their return, members of the 77th Fighter Squadron arrived home Thursday.
The Gamblers touched down at Shaw Air Force Base a little after 6 p.m. and walked into a crowd of family, loved ones and their first sight of U.S. soil in half a year.
About 100 members of the Gambler Aircraft Maintenance Unit and the 20th Operations Support Squadron stepped off an international flight from a deployment to Bagram and Kandahar Air Bases, where the squadron was stationed in support of American and NATO forces in the country.
For some of those waiting in the crowd, the reunion held out the promise of a fresh start. Cheyenne Smith was married to her husband, Senior Airman Joshua Smith, on the Fourth of July last year, and has spent most of their marriage waiting on him to return.
“We were together for three months before he left,” she said, her arms wrapped around his neck while on the tarmac.
Airman Smith’s parents, Ed and Doreen, arrived from Florida the day before their son’s plane came home.
“It was wonderful” to see him coming off the plane, Doreen Smith said. “My heart was...” and she beat the palm of her hand on her chest very quickly.
Mostly, she said, seeing her son arrive home safely was “a great relief.”
“He’s our hero,” she said.
For Master Sgt. Mike Smith (no relation to Joshua), the day-long flight from Afghanistan seemed to get longer the closer the squadron got.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for seven months,” he said. “Each leg seemed like it got more and more long.”
His 7-year-old daughter, Ava, sitting in her father’s arms, added: “It was night there” when he left.
Asked what she wanted to do with her dad now that he is home, she looked at him and said “spend time with you.”
Smith’s wife, Jennifer, said Ava and her 3-year-old brother, Logan, hung balloons and streamers throughout the house the family bought when they moved to Sumter from Florida last August. For her, the homecoming meant a chance at a more stable family life.
“We’re going to try to get settled,” she said. “We basically just got here when he left.”
Nearby, Senior Airman Stephen Gonzalez had similar thoughts as he kissed his 1-year-old daughter, Eva. His goals now that he was back in the country were clear.
“Hanging out with my family, being a father and husband, getting back into that rhythm,” Gonzalez said. “I’m real happy.”
Almost 40 members of the motorcycle group the Patriot Guard, about half of them veterans themselves, lined the gangway with American flags to form an honor guard as the airmen deplaned.
“The group got started for funerals, so this is one of our good missions,” said guard Fred “Deuce” Nance.
Many members of the Patriot Guard, some of whom rode from as far as Georgia and Tennessee, will return to Shaw on Tuesday for a memorial service for Gambler pilot Capt. James Steel, who died when his F-16 crashed outside Kabul on April 3.
“It’s important to do the memorials,” Nance said. “But these kinds of missions rejuvenate us from the memorials.”