TOP STORY >> Many airmen return, but others are leaving
Leader staff writer
Twenty-six airmen from the 50th and 61st Airlift Squadrons and the 463rd Airlift Group are preparing to leave within the week for a three- to six-month deployment in the Middle East.
Nearly 100 airmen from Little Rock Air Force Base are deploying in the region in small groups until mid-Feb-ruary to provide training for the Iraqi Air Force at Ali Base, Iraq, as well as fly C-130 Hercules cargo missions out of Balad Air Base, Iraq.
Due to mission security concerns, the date of the deployment and how many C-130s from Little Rock Air Force Base are currently flying in the Middle East cannot be revealed, said Lt. Jon Quinlan, deputy chief of public affairs for the 314th Airlift Wing.
There are about 150 airmen from the 463rd Airlift Group stationed in the Middle East, part of the 500 airmen from Little Rock Air Force Base deployed worldwide to fight in the war on terror.
Those deploying replace the nearly 100 airmen who returned to Little Rock Air Force Base Sunday afternoon after a five-month deployment in the deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.
A crowd of about 100 families and friends gathered along the flight line in patient anticipation for the arrival of the returning airmen.
The C-130s flew low over the base so both adults and children could wave at the aircraft.
“My husband deployed earlier in the month, so we’re here to welcome the folks from our unit back,” said Mary Gomez, wife of Col. John Gomez, commander of the 463rd Airlift Group.
She and son Addison, 16, held a bundle of brightly colored balloons as they greeted the airmen.
“You’re always thinking about your family while you’re gone,” said Lt. Col. Mark Czelusta, commander of the 463rd Airlift Group’s Operations Support Squadron.
The time apart was difficult, but Czelusta’s wife, Susan, and daughter, Maddie, 7, made it through.
“I went back to work as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Sherwood, so that was a little change,” Susan Czelusta said. “Maddie was a little sad at first but got into a routine and did well.”
“My family has made it work. I owe them the first thank you. They sacrifice so much. This homecoming is as much about the families as it is about us,” Mark Czelusta said.
The returning airmen receive two weeks of reconstitution leave granted after serving abroad. Most of the airmen said they will spend the time with their families, and some will do nothing but relax.
“Being away from home for the holidays was the worst part of being deployed,” said Lt. Gary Toroni, a returning C-130 pilot with the 61st Airlift Squadron. Despite the dangers and loneliness, the mission was rewarding. “The Iraqi people I met over there went through hell but are just as nice as anything,” Toroni said.