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Fighting Phoenix return for last time

It was a bittersweet homecoming this week for the aviators of VAQ-128’s “Fighting Phoenix” at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

The Navy announced Thursday that the land-based expeditionary squadron would be decommissioned in May, with the Prowlers being absorbed into other squadrons.

The families waiting in the Fighting Phoenix hangar Thursday had far less of a wait for their loved ones than many squadrons at Whidbey. The squadron was only gone three months, deployed as an expeditionary logistics unit to Marine Corps Station Iwakuni, Japan.

During their deployment the squadron supported missions and training exercises at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan and Misawa Air Force Base, Japan.

The Prowlers that swooped into Whidbey in two groups Wednesday and Thursday were not the same jets that left three months ago. During the Misawa detachment maintenance personnel traveled to Atsugi to swap four Phoenix Prowlers for four VAQ-136 “Gauntlet” jets. The swap gives the Gauntlets four upgraded EA-6B Prowlers, and brings four home for modification.

Still, three months is a long time when you’re newly married, and newly pregnant.

“It was a honeymoon baby,” Karen De Bellis, wife of Lt. Cmdr. Jay De Bellis said as she scanned the sky. The couple married in October, and he flew out a week later. She was able to join him in Japan at one point to share the news.

Karen De Bellis said she was disappointed to hear the squadron would be breaking up.

“It’s a great group,” she said, gesturing to the waiting families. “I just got to know them.”

Cheryl Johnston, wife of the squadron’s executive officer, Cmdr. Jay Johnston, has been through 17 years of deployments and homecomings. A television showing cartoons entertained the two younger Johnston children, Mark and Mary, while Matt, in an NJROTC uniform, and Mike munched on cookies.

Mark Johnston, 7, said he wanted to go golfing with his dad, and show him the wrestling moves he had learned in the last three months.

Tha assembled families had been waiting all week for their loved ones to arrive. The arrival date was changed several times. Three planes flew in Wednesday ahead of schedule, so instead of being greeted by hugs and kisses, there was just the usual hangar crew.

Thursdays arrival was pushed back an hour, leaving families to wait in the chilly hangar.

“It’s been an emotional yo-yo,” Tricia Drummond, wife of commanding officer, Cmdr. Fred Drummond, said, “but at least they’re coming home.”

This was the last homecoming for the Fighting Phoenix, and it was also the last one for Cmdr. Drummond. He hopes to be “flying a desk” at the Pentagon soon.

“It’s sad to see it end,” he said, although he proclaimed the deployment a success.

“It was great working with the Marines,” he said. “All around, I couldn’t have asked for a better deployment.”

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

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