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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A dozen F-16s, their pilots and 36 of the airmen, who keep the jets flying, returned home Friday from Afghanistan, where they have been deployed since late September.
The members of the 4th Fighter Squadron and 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit worked out of Bagram Airfield, providing close air support to ground forces.
That meant dropping thousands of bombs, but often the jets accomplished their objectives just by being in the air making lots of noise. "Their presence alone was often enough to satisfy the ground commanders' intents," said Col. Scott Long, who returned from Afghanistan in February to become the wing's commander.
Their presence alone was often enough to satisfy the ground commanders' intents.
–Col. Scott Long, Air Force
"They worked 24/7 every single day. To be honest with you, in nine months I didn't have a day off," Long said of his time in Afghanistan.
Pilots flew every day. Ground crews "got the aircraft airborne, got them back on the ground, got them loaded back up with munitions," he said. "They supported with thousands of bombs."
At home, Monica Bailey said the airmen were gone long enough to miss all of the major holidays, anniversaries and almost an entire school year. "Fortunately no one had to have a baby with their husband away," she said as she and other families waited for the first group of jets to arrive. "We're just happy they're all coming home safely."
Just then, the sound of four F-16s flying in formation overhead interrupted all conversation. The first jet to peel off from the formation was Monica Bailey's husband, Lt. Col. Chris Bailey, the squadron leader.
The jets taxied to a stop and the families moved in close. Then engines stopped, the canopies popped up and crew chiefs hung ladders off the side of the cockpits. The pilots came down and were surrounded by their families.
"Seeing the family — it's incredible," Chris Bailey said. He said the pilots were also surprised by the number of people waiting on the ground, including the media. "We didn't expect to see something like that. It's very humbling."
"When you're flying in combat, it's awesome. But coming home to get to see your family is such a great experience." Lt. Col. Chris Bailey, Air Force
Bailey introduced his family to reporters, ending with his youngest daughter, Erin, who was scooped up in her mother's arms. "She definitely looks older. Her mother doesn't, but she does."
"Good answer," his wife responded.
Capt. Aaron Bandy found the experience of coming home hard to describe. "When you're flying in combat, it's awesome. But coming home to get to see your family is such a great experience — to be back at Hill, friends and family," he said. "Coming home is also the greatest."
Bandy's wife, Kerri, said she is happy to see her husband do his job. But she had no trouble describing how it felt knowing he would be flying in combat compared to knowing he was on his way home. "It's the difference between the scariest moment of my life and one of the most exciting moments of my life."
Bandy said it took a combination of ground stops and aerial refueling over a course of about seven days for the group to get home.
Squadron commander Bailey was wearing a patch noting 100 flying missions. He said it has taken him years of flying and three deployments, including one to Iraq, to reach that mark. The intensity of recent missions means pilots much younger than he have also reached the 100-mission mark.
"Until you have seen them you don't realize the incredible sacrifices people are making," Bailey said, "how dedicated they are to the mission and getting the job done."