Wednesday, December 20, 2006

TOP STORY >>Joyous reunion as airmen return home

Leader staff writer

They didn’t play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but it could have blared from the flightline early Sunday morning at Little Rock Air Force Base as friends, families and loved ones welcomed 130 airmen home from overseas.

The plane filled with returning airmen landed about a half hour earlier than expected, but no one was heard complaining. Most of those airmen were deployed on the average for four months in the “area of responsibility,” according to 2nd Lt. Kelly George of public affairs at LRAFB. “Area of responsibility” refers to the region in close proximity to where the war is being fought in Iraq.

Infants, toddlers, preteens and teens, along with wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers seemed thrilled at their early Christmas gift. And the men and women stepping from the C-130 onto American soil matched the crowd’s enthusiasm on the flightline.

Some of those airmen looked exhausted, but most faces lit up when they saw their friends and families waiting for them. One family carrying balloons and a sign rushed out onto the flightline to greet a returning airman. First Lt. Jason Seklejian beamed as he looked into the eyes of his children, Olivia and Sophia, for the first time in months since his deployment. Seklejian and his wife, Danielle, also had an emotional reunion. Seklejian was focusing on the here and now rather than the past few months though.

Asked about what it was like where he had been stationed and what had happened during his deployment, Seklejian replied, “It’s a desert and just normal stuff.” Like everyone else, one of the top priorities for Seklejian after getting back home was to take a shower after encountering sandstorms in the desert. While waiting for his dufflebag of personal belongings, Staff Sgt. Jeff Ikner held his 3-year-old daughter, Brittany, and talked with his other daughter, Alexis, and his wife, Sandy.

The four were within inches of each other for most of the entire wait of approximately 45 minutes. “I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about it,” said Sandy Ikner. She heard two weeks ago that her husband would return home before Christmas. Ikner, as airspace ground equipment mechanic, said, “It feels good to be home. His wife said their youngest daughter was unhappy that her father was gone for so long.

“Four months is a long time when you’re only 3 years old, she said. Basic needs such as a taking a shower, relaxing and eating breakfast were also on Ikner’s mind, but he said the food served overseas was “good.” George confirmed that certain areas had excellent meals with one dinner touted as “lobster” night. “Several of my friends have gained weight over there,” she quipped.

Tired but happy airmen and women dispersed as the sun came up on Saturday. As one of those unidentified airman picked up his dufflebag, he exclaimed, “I want some French toast.” Despite these warm holiday reunions, there’s still a war on, and not all of the military personnel are yet home. For the most part, many of these returning airmen were deployed for four months at a time, but others may serve an entire year, depending on their assignments, according to George.

Recently, 700 airmen from here have been serving throughout the world, according to the public affairs office at LRAFB. Of those 700, 450 airmen were specifically serving in the Iraqi war effort.