From Afghanistan, home to Whidbey

The Garudas of VAQ-134 enjoyed a unique homecoming Wednesday morning at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The 150-person squadron came home together instead of a flight of four EA-6B Prowlers followed in a few days by an airlift of enlisted members and officers.

The jets are remaining in Afghanistan with VAQ-133 Wizards who replaced the Garudas.

“The planes are tired,” Lt. Matt Zublic said. “Our maintainers did a fabulous job. I can’t thank them enough.”

Zublic, an electronics countermeasures officer, said the squadron had only one no-flying day between April and July.

But even that day maintenance crews had to be at work, Petty Officer 2nd Class Grayson Mills said.

“The planes took a beating,” he said. “We worked all the time.” Mills worked in the airframes department with other sheet metal and hydraulics mechanics. Airframers perform body maintenance on the aging jets. Except for changing one wing on a Prowler, Mills said his department worked on “regular stuff,” including changing hydraulics tubes and pumps.

To keep the radar-jamming jets flying for 350 missions, Zublic said maintenance crews worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off for the entire deployment. When people weren’t working, the Afghanistan base had little fun to offer people who were off duty.

“We could lift weights or catch a movie in the MWR hut. That was about it,” Zublic said.

While constant missions wore on people and planes, Southwest Asia’s weather presented another hurdle. Zublic said when they arrived in April conditions were much like a Whidbey Island summer with warm days that cooled at night. However, temperatures and winds began rising. Zublic said highs of 90 degrees with 40 mile per hour winds weren’t uncommon. If wind didn’t blow, the high could rise above 100 degrees.

“And if the humidity came up, everything was miserable,” Zublic remembered.

They also had to watch for assorted desert critters. Zublic said they saw a viper early in the deployment. Camel spiders were regular visitors. These arachnids ranged from one the size of a fingernail to large ones, six or seven inches across. Shoes and bedding were shaken daily to dislodge lurking scorpions.

But at homecoming no one dwells much on a deployment past. Everyone reveled in being home with family.

Children shrieked and ran around the hangar. Some mothers wondered if toddlers would recognize their fathers. Dedra Theoret had no misgivings about 22-month-old Aurora’s memory about Lt. Michael Theoret.

“All day Aurora’s been saying ‘Daddee, Daddee, fun and flag,’” she said.

Dedra’s concern was who would get the first hug: Aurora or 8-week-old Sierra. Until Wednesday morning, the only picture sent to Afghanistan had been of a newly-born Sierra.

“With two, I’m nervous about who he will hold first,” Dedra said.

Children weren’t the only ones waiting. Steve and Tina Clemons drove from Houston, Texas, in three days to greet their son 22-year-old Airman Chris Clemons.

“It’s his first deployment and I worried about him,” Tina Clemons said. “But Chris called and that reassured me.”

Steve Clemons said the deployment was the longest they had been separated from their son: “But he’s in the Navy and that’s the way it is. We’re very proud of him.”

When the plane completed its taxi — to signs, flags and shrieks of “finally,” — families reunited.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world, to get a welcome like this,” Theoret said. “Words can’t describe my feelings as a father,” he said, cradling Sierra while his wife cried and Aurora peered up at her tall “Daddee.”

For the next few weeks, Garuda families will enjoy post-deployment leave.

Clemons, an undesignated airman, looks forward to getting back to work — launching jets and striking for his rating. He’s interested in air frames — or aviation ordnanceman.

“I’d like to work with things that blow up,” he said.

Tina and Steve Clemons looked askance at their son’s “explosive” statement, but shrugged. What could they do?

Their son had collected hazardous duty pay in a war zone and carried a 9 mm pistol everywhere he went. Clemons’ comments on becoming an ordanceman didn’t stagger his parents. He was back now, and safe.

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