Home from Enduring Freedom

The EA-6B Prowler squadron that flew the first radar and communication jamming operations during the first airstrikes of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, returned home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Friday.

Electronic Attack Squadron-135 pilots and crew in four Prowlers touched down at the naval air station to the fanfare of a heroes’ welcome and the waiting arms of much-relieved loved ones. The squadron had been on a six-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

Nicknamed the Black Ravens, VAQ-135 joined forces with sister squadrons from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in support of joint and combined airborne and ground troops. VAQ-135 spent 71 days flying 115 missions into Afghanistan, said Cmdr. Steve Kirby, commanding officer of VAQ-135. Kirby piloted home the first of the four Prowler jets to land at home on Friday morning.

The six-month deployment was definitely not routine.

“It was different because when we left we planned on going into the Persian Gulf,” in support of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq, Kirby said. Instead, he and his pilots and crewmembers made flights greater in number and duration than they would have in Iraq. But, that didn’t get them down.

“After we saw what happened on September 11th, everyone was really focused on doing the job,” Kirby said.

Meanwhile, back at home Maureen Kirby was focused on the job before her as well. As the commanding officer’s wife, Maureen Kirby helps to provide support for squadron members’ spouses and families. Operation Enduring Freedom, and the daily media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, “kept our thoughts on the situation that much more,” she said. The spouses would get together as often as possible to talk, share feelings and to provide strength to each other.

VAQ-135 has two ombudsmen, specially trained sources of information and referrals, that spouses can turn to for assistance. Sandy Rodriguez and Karey Bachman would receive phone calls from nervous spouses who knew their loved ones were playing a big role in Operation Enduring Freedom.

“We’d reassure them that (our spouses) were safe,” Rodriguez said at the homecoming on Friday.

As the days drew closer for the squadron to return home, fear for the squadron members’ safety turned to jitters of anticipation for many spouses, Rodriguez said. During the past few days many of the families were putting the finishing touches on homecoming preparations.

Orlanda Welch knows all too well both sides of military life. She is both a Navy wife and a Navy officer.

Welch and her three children, Omani, 9, O’Jinae 6, and Orion, Jr. 4, waited for the arrival of her husband, Lt. Orion Welch. While the children happily munched on Prowler-shaped cookies, Orlanda Welch talked about how her being a Navy officer helped her keep her emotions in check during the difficult periods.

“As a wife, it’s really difficult, but being military, I understand it a little clearer,” said Orlanda Welch, an Ensign stationed with VAQ-129. “I have confidence in the Navy and in the Prowler mission.”

Perhaps Welch described how all military spouses manage to make it through deployments, both routine and extraordinary.

Said Welch: “Pray and hope for the best...keep the happy face on for the kids.”

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