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Whidbey sailors return from war in Afghanistan

Bailey Ward, 8, plugs his ears as he and his twin brother Kyler watch their father’s Prowler jet returns from Afghanistan to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The boys’ father, Navy Cmdr. J. Mike Ward, is the executive officer for VAQ-133. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Bailey Ward, 8, plugs his ears as he and his twin brother Kyler watch their father’s Prowler jet returns from Afghanistan to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The boys’ father, Navy Cmdr. J. Mike Ward, is the executive officer for VAQ-133.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

OAK HARBOR — The happy homecoming tears began to fall before the jets even touched the tarmac.

As a crowd of more than

100 watched, three Navy jets from Electronic Attack Squadron 133 returned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Monday from a six-month deployment to the war in Afghanistan.

Unlike other Prowler squadrons from Whidbey Island that have been sent to the war in Iraq in recent years, VAQ-133 deployed as an “expeditionary,” or land-based, squadron to the Middle East. Instead of being deployed aboard an aircraft carrier, the squadron was sent to Bagram Air Field, a sprawling Army base in Afghanistan where more than 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed.

And for the Navy families left waiting on Whidbey, it made the combat tour a frightening departure from past deployments.

“I would have preferred for him to be on the ship. Definitely,” said Karen Ward, the wife of Navy Cmdr. J. Mike Ward, the squadron’s executive officer.

“I would feel like a ship is a little safer than this,” she said, adding that her husband was armed with a loaded gun 24 hours a day while at Bagram — something rare for officers who serve aboard Navy ships.

The danger was underscored last February, before the deployment began.

A suicide bomber tried to kill Vice President Dick Cheney during his visit to Bagram Air Base, and the Taliban attack left

23 people dead and 20 wounded. Two Americans were among those killed.

“Reality hit there, and I was like, “Oh...’” Ward said.

Deployments are nothing new to the 19-year Navy veteran. Cmdr. Ward was a Navy brat, his wife said, and she admitted that she lost count of how many overseas tours he’s taken since his fifth deployment a few years ago.

Standing amid a boisterous crowd waving small American flags and hand-made banners, Ward’s eyes began to mist as the three returning jets approached low over the horizon and came into view.

In her right arm, she held their son, Camren, 3, as her twin boys, Bailey and Kyler, 8, put their fingers against their ears as the roar from the Prowlers began to fill the VAQ-133 hangar. All three boys were dressed in green flight suits, just like the one their father wears at work.

Being a single mom for the past six months has been a strain, Ward said.

“It’s tough, I mean, I won’t lie. But I signed up for it, so, you know. Make the best out of it, that’s kind of my attitude.”

The Wards have been married 11 years. They met at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia Beach, Va., when Cmdr. Ward was an

A-6 Intruder pilot.

During the deployment, life when on for the Navy wife and her children.

“I’m not going to wait. You only get one life. So I’m not going to waste this time,” she explained. “This is the only time they will be 3 and 8 - so make the most out of it.”

“I’m looking forward to being a family,” Ward said as her husband’s jet approached Whidbey. “Boys need their dad. I can only do so much.”

The family reunion was only moments away, however.

The crowd erupted in screams and squeals when the three Prowlers — the Navy’s radar- and communications-jamming jets — approached.

After the jets rolled to a stop in front of the hangar, the crews emerged and Navy officials gave the go-ahead for families to rush out onto the tarmac.

Navy Lt Cmdr. Shannon “Shaggy” Parker had taken just a few steps from his jet before he was stopped cold in his tracks.

His wife, Sarah, wrapped an arm around his neck and buried her face into his chest. She pulled back and looked in his eyes, and they kissed.

The pilot took his flight helmet off and they froze, staring again at each other for several silent moments as other Navy families swirled past toward other returning sailors. She cupped his face in her hands, and they kissed. They stared silently at each other and then kissed again.

Parker struggled for words to describe what it was like seeing his wife after six months away.

“It’s honestly the best day of my life,” he said.

Lt. Cmdr. David Moore, an electronic countermeasures officer, picked up his 9-month-old daughter Genevieve as his wife Elspeth beamed with joy.

It was his third deployment.

“You miss a lot of things; first words, first crawling. Sitting up for the first time; that kind of stuff. It’s just good to be home,” he said.

The deployment was the third trip the “Wizards” of VAQ-133 have made to Afghanistan.

Cmdr. John Spingett, commanding officer of the squadron, said the deployments were starting to look the same.

“They meld together. Having spent a year of my life in Afghanistan, I was just happy to leave it,” Spingett said.

At Bagram, the sailors lived in 40-by-20-foot wood buildings called B-huts.

“You lived the life of essentially the Army guys,” Spingett said.

“You’re living in the fight,” he said, adding that the base was shelled five or six times during the deployment and the combat duty was nonstop.

“We flew every day; 174 out of 175 days,” Spingett said.

Although the airlift carrying the support and maintenance crews had been expected to arrive home Sunday, the return of the squadron’s personnel was delayed until Tuesday morning.

Spingett said Monday he wouldn’t rest until all of his sailors were back home safe on Whidbey.

“It hasn’t hit me that the deployment is over yet. My 123 bodies that remain — I need to see them on deck. And then I’ll be able to relax,” he said.

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