Kentucky Airmen return from Persian Gulf deployment on Independence Day

  • Published
  • By Maj. Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
This 4th of July was a special one for 39 members of the 123rd Airlift Wing, who received a hero's welcome from more than 200 flag-waving friends and family when they returned to the Kentucky Air National Guard Base here today following a deployment to the Persian Gulf region.

Several of those family members, like 3-year-old Declan Gilreath and 2-year-old Max Gordon, carried signs with phrases like "Welcome Home Daddy!" and "Move It or Lose It: I'm here to get my DADDY!"

Many in the crowd found it impossible to contain their emotions. The daughters of one C-130 pilot burst into tears as soon as they began to hug their father, while others jumped for joy when they saw their loved ones walking toward them across the airfield tarmac.

For Vanna Jones, the day was especially significant. Her boyfriend, Tech. Sgt. Mike Johnson, dropped to one knee, presented her with a diamond engagement ring and asked her to marry him moments after he stepped off the C-130 aircraft that carried him home.

"I fell in love with you the first time I saw your smile, " Johnson told Jones. "Will you marry me?"

A trembling Jones, clearly surprised, answered yes.

Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini, who was on hand to greet the returning Airmen, said scenes like Johnson's proposal are one the highlights of his job.

"I've been the adjutant general now for seven and a half years," Tonini said. "I've welcomed thousands upon thousands of Airmen and Soldiers home from combat, and every single time, it brings a tear to my eye to see the families as happy as they are when their loved ones come back from being in harm's way. These 39 Kentucky Air National Guardsmen got to come home to their families on the 4th of July. It doesn't get much better than that."

The returning Airmen are among more than 100 Kentucky Air National Guardsmen who have been supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel since February, serving on tours ranging from two to four months.

Freedom's Sentinel is the follow-on mission to Operation Enduring Freedom. It focuses on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces; and on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

During their deployment, the Kentucky troops joined forces with Airmen from the Missouri Air National Guard to fly C-130 airlift missions across the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility, which includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Africa.

In the past four months, the Missouri-Kentucky Team flew more than 1,000 combat sorties that delivered over 3,500 short tons of cargo and nearly 4,000 personnel to destinations across the AOR.

The deployment marks the sixth time in the past 12 years that the Kentucky Air Guard has sent its aircraft, aircrews and maintenance personnel to support U.S. military operations in U.S. Central Command. The wing deployed aviation assets there in 2003, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012, operating from multiple undisclosed locations and Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

The wing's non-aviation personnel also have been heavily engaged around the world since Sept. 11, 2001, logging thousands of deployments to dozens of overseas locations, including Iraq and Afghanistan. In October, more than 70 of the wing's Airmen deployed to Africa to support Operation United Assistance, the international effort to fight the worst Ebola outbreak in history.