story and photos by Aric Mitchell
Only the 188th Fighter Wing could pry Vicky Allen’s arms away from her son Kyle.
But on Friday (Oct. 12) each of the returning 280 members had missions of their own when the passenger jet landed, bringing the main body home from deployment to Afghanistan.
And that mission was finding their family members in a crowd of close to 2,000 — a “conservative estimate,” according to a 188th Public Affairs representative — at the Consolidated Maintenance Facility of the 188th.
“It’s overwhelming,” Allen said. “It’s just a different feeling when it’s your own child over there. You’re very proud. You’re very nervous.”
Of course, Allen’s son isn’t a child anymore. The boy she once held in her arms and swore to protect is now the protector.
“I’m happy to be home. I’ve been there for six months, so it’s nice to be back and see my family,” Kyle said.
As the men and women of the 188th poured out of the plane and through the “handshake line,” they were “ecstatic” to board the buses that would take them to their families.
Some of the families hadn’t seen their soldiers in six months. Some, three. Regardless of the time away, it didn’t slow them down.
An expecting mother bolted through the crowd with a speed and agility far beyond what one would expect from the baby-bump.
A pair of blond-haired children jumped into the arms of their father, serviceman Matt King.
“What I’ve missed out on is just being with them every day. You start to notice a change in them when you’re Skyping. You can just tell they don’t have a father figure at home, so I’m going to spend the next month catching up. I’m ecstatic — just, happy.”
That’s all the time you’re getting with King. Wife Mescha is able to share a quick embrace and a kiss, but for now, it’s Daddy-time.
“The little ones are two and four. It’s really tough because they don’t understand. I would just say that he was gone to the ‘airplane work,’ because that’s what my son (the four-year old) calls it: the airplane work. It was tough, because they would ask when he’s coming home, and you’d have to say, ‘Not today,’” Mescha said.
Mescha credited family with “helping out a lot” and acknowledged that Skype made it easier to stay in touch in addition to the occasional phone call. She also leaned on her friends, including Krystal Lamar, whose husband Chance will return next week.
“It’s easier when you have people that are going through it also,” Lamar said. “My husband’s still gone. He won’t come home for a few more days, so we’ve kind of been able to vent to each other a little bit. I feel for her because she had to deal with all of this. I don’t have kids or anything.”
Servicewoman Kelli Gray is a mom, who can relate to both sides. While husband Andy was on a three-month deployment — his fourth (and second in Afghanistan) — she stayed home with their 6-year old son Drew.
Drew wasn’t there to greet his dad on Friday, but the Grays confessed that the boy, a Cook Elementary student, would be getting a visit from his dad at school.
“He knows his dad’s coming home, but we’re going to surprise him,” Kelli said.
The Grays “aren’t sure” what their plans for the evening will entail.
“Hang out with the kiddo,” Andy said.
“Probably just whatever he (their son) wants to do,” Kelli adds. “It will be great just to have everyone home in the same house.”
The Allens, the Grays, the Kings, the Lamars — their stories highlight an important point of Friday’s event for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
“My dad did 20 years in the Air Force, and I understand that these are family affairs. These men and women don’t just do it themselves. The family is part of that commitment, and it’s so nice to see the outpouring of community support that we’re seeing today and how this community and the whole region supports the 188th,” Boozman said. “Seeing them as they reunite with their families—there’s just no replacement for that. It’s good that they’re all here safe. That’s the main thing. And I know that they’re anxious to get with their families and catch up.”
Perhaps no one understands the importance of “catching up” more than Billy Gilbert. In 2005, Gilbert was deployed to Iraq, but things were quite different for him then. He didn’t have wife Melissa worrying about whether he would return.
He’d yet to meet son Elijah.
When Gilbert took the 23-day old child in his arms not 30 minutes after stepping off the plane, he was doing so for the first time.
He’d seen Elijah’s face a few times, most notably “over the Internet,” but he couldn’t count each toe or change his first diaper or allow the child to grab his finger. Not until Friday.
Cradling Elijah, Gilbert admits, “I was really nervous at first; then excited. Now I don’t want to give him up.”
Gilbert witnessed his son’s birth at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith through the Skype feed in Afghanistan.
“It was a pretty nerve-racking and awesome experience at the same time. You know, that far away it can still make you cry.”
For Gilbert’s wife Melissa, his return is “a long time coming.”
“Whenever we first found out that we were pregnant, we didn’t know about the deployment or when it was going to happen. Then we found out his deployment was going to be taking place while I’m having the baby, but we were lucky to be able to have great doctors that let us have Skype in the hospital, so he was able to see the delivery. That was a good experience. Now to actually be able to see him holding him and be part of the official family now … ”
Melissa doesn’t finish. For the wife and mother, the image of father and son together at last says more than words ever could.