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Cougars return

Scott Kuller, 10, is all smiles as he leans on his dad, VAQ-139 Lt. Cmdr. Brian Kuller, for the first time in almost 10 months. The squadron took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom while on the longest deployment since the Vietnam War, and the longest ever for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. - Fumiko Yarita-Bonham
Scott Kuller, 10, is all smiles as he leans on his dad, VAQ-139 Lt. Cmdr. Brian Kuller, for the first time in almost 10 months. The squadron took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom while on the longest deployment since the Vietnam War, and the longest ever for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
— image credit: Fumiko Yarita-Bonham

Madison Gaber’s daddy had been gone for nearly a quarter of her young life, and the 4-year-old clung to him as if she never wanted him to leave again.

Lt. Cmdr. Wallace “Chip” Gaber, of Oak Harbor, was one of 16 members of the VAQ-139 “Cougar” squadron who returned to Whidbey Naval Air Station from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln Wednesday to be greeted by more than a hundred cheering, screaming family members and friends.

“This is what it’s all about,” Gaber said, holding little Madison tightly. “I just wanted to see those eyes.”

Madison’s big brown eyes kept returning to her daddy’s face, as if learning it anew after the long absence, while the happy chaos of homecoming swirled around them.

While most of the returning flyers just wanted to go home and be with their families, trying to return to normal life after being gone for almost 10 months, Madison had definite plans for what she wanted to do with her dad.

“I want to go bowling,” she said. She told her dad she had recently bowled a “ninety.”

Gaber’s sister Terrie Gaber came from Colorado Springs, Colorado to attend the homecoming.

“That’s his whole life, right there,” she said, nodding at Madison.

Like all the family members gathered, Terrie Gaber was proud of her brother, and relieved to have him home.

“There’s nobody more proud, and more humble, than my brother,” she said.

Pride in their returning heroes swelled as the flag-waving crowd anxiously waited in Hangar 10, the huge bay doors opened to the flight line. It erupted in a burst of Souza music from the Navy band, and cheers and screams as the returning EA-6B Prowlers buzzed the hangar in a teasing flyby at 4:25 p.m.

After nine long months it seemed like forever before the four jets finally taxied up to the hangar and lined up, wings folded, in perfect order, number 500, 501, 502 and 503. The smell of jet fuel washed into the hangar, and those who hadn’t put in earplugs covered their ears against the deafening roar of the idling engines.

Then the jets went still, the cockpits opened and the fliers emerged after their first landing on terra firma since last July. Even before they touched ground their families were running across the short stretch of tarmac that separated them. Before they could get their helmets off the flyers were hugged, kissed, and overwhelmed with emotion.

A few minutes later in the hangar squadron commander Scott Pollpeter was still stunned by the reception, which his wife Sandi had been instrumental in staging.

“They don’t prepare us for this,” he said, looking at the crowd and the decorated hangar.

“There’s nothing better than this,” he said. “It’s all great. It can feel surreal out there, but this is real.”

Sandi Pollpeter gripped her husband’s hand tightly.

“I feel at peace,” she said. “All the worry and anxiety is done. Over.”

Pollpeter’s parents, Donald and Phyllis Pollpeter, took time off from farming in Iowa to attend the homecoming, but they didn’t know how much they would get to see their son before they had to leave on Tuesday.

Phyllis wore a gold necklace that read, “God Bless My Flyer.”

She said she was most afraid for her son while he flew in Operation Iraqi Freedom because of the threat of chemical warfare.

During the first 19 days of the war Cougar aircrews dodged dense anti-artillery and surface-to-air missiles while they carried out their mission of jamming enemy radar and communications, according to the NAS Whidbey public affairs office.

Prowler squadrons from Whidbey flew from the first days of the conflict, providing cover for the fighter jets and bombers that followed. The Prowlers logged 313 flight hours over Iraq, and no planes or crew were lost in the operation.

One of those waiting to greet the returning crew was base commander Capt. Stephen Black.

“Scotty and I are old friends,” he said, jokingly making “devil horns” behind Pollpeters’ head while the press caught the light-hearted moment on film. “It’s great to have them all back.”

It has been a tense time on the air base lately, with much of the base gone on deployment, and the rest under high security.

“You can’t beat it when you see this,” Black said. “These are great days.”

The returning Cougar pilots had the splashiest homecoming, befitting their long tenure at war, but other crews from Whidbey have started arriving home as well.

VAQ squadrons 128 and 134 have sent crews home from their land bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the rest of the Cougars’ 160-person support crew stepped off of transport planes Friday.

Squadrons still deployed are the VAQ-130 “Zappers,” aboard the USS Harry Truman, the VAQ-131 “Lancers,” aboard the USS Constellation, the VAQ-138 “Yellow Jackets,” aboard the USS Carl Vinson, and the VAQ-141 “Shadowhawks,” aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Black said more of the deployed squadrons will be returning in the days to come, but in the cycle of the Navy, there are always others on deck, readying for another deployment.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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