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Madison Gabers 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 its all about, Gaber said, holding little Madison tightly. I just wanted to see those eyes.
Madisons big brown eyes kept returning to her daddys 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.
Gabers sister Terrie Gaber came from Colorado Springs, Colorado to attend the homecoming.
Thats 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.
Theres 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 hadnt 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 dont prepare us for this, he said, looking at the crowd and the decorated hangar.
Theres nothing better than this, he said. Its all great. It can feel surreal out there, but this is real.
Sandi Pollpeter gripped her husbands hand tightly.
I feel at peace, she said. All the worry and anxiety is done. Over.
Pollpeters parents, Donald and Phyllis Pollpeter, took time off from farming in Iowa to attend the homecoming, but they didnt 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. Its 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 cant 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 675-6611