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Erica Burfield tried to brace herself for all possible scenarios.
Her daughter Paige was barely 2 the last time she saw her. Now, she was fast approaching 3 and literally fast approaching on the flight line.
“Did you miss Mommy?” Burfield asked.
Eight months of separation ended Sunday afternoon with the reunion of a little girl and her mother at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
It was a scene that played out over and over Sunday and Monday as the Electronic Attack Squadron 133 “Wizards” arrived home from an eight-month combat deployment aboard the USS John C. Stennis.
Burfield, a Lt. Cmdr., lit up as she held her daughter for the first time since Sept. 1. No phone call or video message could replace the feel of her daughter softly touching her face.
“She’s not a baby anymore,” Burfield said. “She’s definitely a little girl. I was happy that she knew who I was because I’ve heard a lot of stories that when they’re so young and you’re gone for so long, that they can be a little hesitant at first, or maybe a little apprehensive. Kind of like, ‘Who are you?’ There are planes, it’s loud, it’s scary. But no, she ran right over.”
Burfield was one of 12 aviators aboard three EA-6B Prowlers from VAQ-133 that touched down around noon Sunday as their families eagerly awaited. A fourth aircraft with four more aviators had their homecoming postponed until Monday due to a mechanical problem with the plane.
Sunday’s fly-in was followed by an airlift carrying 175 squadron maintenance and support personnel on Monday night.
The deployment originally was scheduled to be for four months beginning in January, but it doubled in length after the Wizards deployed early after only six months at home.
“It felt like one continuous deployment,” said Cmdr. Michael Bisbee, commanding officer of VAQ-133. “It’s a great feeling to be back home.”
At the hangar to greet Bisbee was his wife, Michelle, and their children, Kaitlin, 13; and Zach, 10.
“We’re so excited to have him home,” Michelle said. “Just being able to have him home for dinner, it’s the little things you look forward to.”
Bisbee noted that his daughter had gotten taller and looked more grown up.
“I haven’t seen them in eight months. It’s almost an entire school year,” Bisbee said.
“I missed him a lot,” Kaitlin said.
Bisbee praised his squadron for its “dedication and perseverance” while away from home for so long.
For a majority of the deployment, the Stennis was the nation’s only aircraft carrier in the Middle East region. It was there to enforce freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf as well as execute combat operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
An eight-month deployment is difficult, even for those who went through it before.
“It doesn’t get easier,” said Elizabeth Westfall, whose husband returned Monday afternoon. “You think you know what to expect but if anything, it gets harder.”
The same was true for Ashley Ward, a mother of three. This was the second deployment she’s waited out at home.
Their third child, 5-week-old Jett, was born while he was away.
The reunions of both families were joyful occasions.
Petty Officer Wayne Westfall said he’d envisioned seeing his wife again countless times but none ever measure up to the real thing.
“It’s like waking up again,” he said.
“Now that it’s over with, it’s like a blur in the past,” echoed Michael Ward, an aviation electrician.
Families have their own ways of dealing with the time apart. While most stay in contact via email or with the single phone call allowed per week, others took more creative approaches.
Becky Bankart put 250 jelly beans in a jar so her children could visualize the number of days their dad, Lt. Cmdr. Hunter Bankart, would be gone.
Each day, either Ashlyn, 4, or Brenden, 2, would eat one and they watch the jar slowly empty.
“We started from the beginning and counted all the way down,” Becky said.
Becky also made a paper chain with the same sort of concept.
“My wife did like a link chain and every day the kids tore off a link from the chain so they could visually see how long it was till I came home,” Hunter said.
“So they’re all excited obviously. They’re little and they can’t count very high. Once we got below 10, they kind of understood that I was coming home pretty soon.”
Hunter Bankart, a second generation Navy pilot from Virginia Beach, Va., smiled widely at every opportunity Sunday, relieved to be back home with his wife and children.
“It’s a pretty awesome experience,” he said.