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Area Air National Guard troops arrive home for Thanksgiving

  • Published
  • By Kim Lamb Gregory
  • Ventura County Star
Family members with flags and handmade "welcome home" signs trained their eyes on the southern horizon, watching for the first of two C-130J Hercules air transport planes due home Wednesday from Afghanistan.

Which is why nobody expected the C-130 to thunder over their heads from the north, prompting squeals of, "Here they come!"

The surprise flyover was by design, acknowledged the squadron commander flying the plane, Lt. Col. Bill Willson.

"I like to come up when nobody's paying attention," Willson later said with a grin.

The two C-130Js, each carrying about 35 Air National Guard members, arrived at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. at the 146th Airlift Wing airfield in Port Hueneme after an almost three-month deployment to Afghanistan.

The C-130 roared onto the tarmac, and the propellers went into a lazy spin, then stopped. A flag perched on the cockpit flapped in the wind.

About 70 family members surged up to the plane, including Nina Byrd, 22, who drove from Moreno Valley to meet her husband, Curtis Byrd, 28. Her eyes bright with tears, she hurried over the tarmac as fast as her platform pumps with 4-inch heels would allow. She carried yellow roses and the couple's 8-month-old son, Phoenix.

Curtis Byrd stepped through the door of the plane, spotted his wife and son, then scooped them into a fierce hug as she wept.

"Oh, my God, you're so big now!" Curtis said, lifting his son in his arms, then added, after looking at his wife: "You look really nice. Check you out!"

Members of Sgt. Lisa Blass' family drove from Fullerton, Bellflower, Cerritos and as far away as Montana to greet her.

Blass' sister, Lorie Blass, 45, choked up when asked whether she worried about her sister during her third tour to Afghanistan.

"Yeah," she said. "I worried more this time than the last time. It's like your last run on the ski slope: You always get hurt."

Lisa's mother, Joanne Blass, 77, wore a furry white polar bear cap with ears that hung down past her waist to make her daughter laugh. She said she worried constantly about her daughter's safety when she was in Afghanistan.

"One time, I saw her picture in uniform, and she has a .45 strapped across her chest," Joanne Blass said. "And I say, 'Oh, no!' And she says, 'Not to worry, Mom.' "

The returning service members were among about 250 members of the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station deployed to support Operation Enduring Freedom in the past several months.

In Afghanistan, the two 146th Operations and Maintenance squadrons worked beside Rhode Island's 143rd Airlift Wing, another C-130J unit. Upon arrival at Bagram air base, the units became the 774th Expeditionary Airlift.

They transported people, food and supplies to the troops and did airdrops of supplies.

"We're helping the Army convoys stay off the roads," said 146th Airlift Wing Cmdr. Greg Jones. "It's much safer."

Safer for ground troops, but hard for the pilots.

"We land on dirt strips 60 feet wide and 3,000 feet long," said Willson, squadron commander of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift.

Also there to greet returning service members was former Fox sports broadcaster Leann Tweeden, currently appearing in Playboy magazine. Tweeden and her husband, Maj. Chris Dougherty, were there with custom-made cigars for the returning Guard members.

"As the wife of someone who has been deployed 11 times so far, it's important to remember all those still over there," Tweeden said.

Before letting the service members go, Jones welcomed them home, then gave a word of caution.

"Take care of each other," he said. "It's going to be a huge change being out there and coming back to family life."

All of the returning Guard members were eager to spend Thanksgiving with their families.

Juanita Olacheo, 78, of Oxnard, said her family was planning a "big shindig" for Thanksgiving including turkey, ham, salads, guacamole and pineapple upside-down cake in the cast-iron pan handed down from her mother.

She cried as she waited for the sixth of her eight sons to alight from the plane. Joseph Anthony Olacheo served two tours in Afghanistan.

"I'm so thankful," she said when she saw her son. "These are tears of joy."