SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. – Friends and family cheered, hugged and kissed the pilots Wednesday of the first F-15E Strike Eagles to return from the war with Iraq. The crew of a Navy sub returning to its Connecticut base also enjoyed a warm homecoming.
The Air Force fighter jets cruised single file to their assigned parking spots at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base before their pilots simultaneously cut the engines and raised the cockpit windows.
Then the pilots ambled over to their families, swinging their children into their arms and embracing their wives.
"Everything else is secondary," said Lt. Col. Randy Roberts, a pilot who flew home one of the dozen planes of the 336th Fighter Squadron of Seymour Johnson's 4th Fighter Wing, which had been stationed in southwest Asia since January.
In the five weeks since the war started, many of the pilots flew hundreds of missions over Iraq, bombing buildings and troops to clear the way for U.S. ground forces.
"We beat up the Iraqis real well," said Capt. Dan King, 33, as he clutched his 21-month-old son, Nate, near his wife, Lara. "It was just an honor to serve."
"These are true war heroes," said Gov. Mike Easley, who welcomed the airmen home. "It will come to light over some period of time what they've done. It's a lot."
About half of the 98 Strike Eagles stationed at Seymour Johnson were deployed for the war effort, along with more than 1,000 airmen.
The jets came home the day the Pentagon released the identity of the second of two airmen killed April 7 in a Seymour Johnson-based Strike Eagle over Iraq.
Maj. William R. "Salty" Watkins III, 37, of Danville, Va., was the fighter jet's weapons system officer. Officials released the identity of the pilot, Capt. Eric B. Das, of Amarillo, Texas, last week, but have not said what happened to the jet.
Roberts said members of his squadron heard about the plane within hours of its disappearance. He advised his men to wait until they returned home to grieve.
"The pace of combat ops allows you to take a step back for about five minutes ... and then you have to jump back into it," he said.
At the Groton Naval Submarine Base in Connecticut, the USS San Juan was welcomed home by about 350 relatives and friends of the crew. The USS Toledo returned last week, and the Navy announced Wednesday that another Groton-based submarine, the USS Pittsburgh, will return next month.
Ken Noyes reunited with his wife and two daughters by hugging them all at once.
"I feel relief, excitement. It's been a really long trip. I want to take a nice hot shower," he told the Norwich Bulletin.
The San Juan had been on a regularly scheduled deployment to the Mediterranean Sea when it was ordered to the Red Sea to support Tomahawk missile strikes on Iraq. U.S. submarines launched about 30 percent of the more than 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired in the war, according to the Navy.
The war added about six weeks to the San Juan's scheduled six-month deployment.
"Seven and a half months seemed like an eternity to me," said the sub's captain, Cmdr. Edward Takesuye. "But the crew knew the work we were doing was important."