ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md.–"Get on the bus," he screams. He stomps his feet and cups his hands around his mouth. "You get on the bus now."
It’s a twilight zone scene, watching the 30-month-old boy ordering his father onto a school bus. The tarmac tamper tantrum is greeted with laughter from the crowd; tears well in his mother Heather’s eyes. If it was any place else she probably would have scolded him, but Elijah Vibar and his twin sister Laila are waiting to see their father, United States Air Force mechanic Mark Vibar, for the first time in four months.
Three KC-135 Stratotankers carrying around 80 airmen from the 459th Air Refueling Wing were supposed to land at Joint Base Andrews at 9 a.m. on Monday after a two-day journey out of Afghanistan. As with any airline, there are delays.
It was a breezy, chilly day in Maryland, so maybe they caught strong headwinds crossing the Atlantic. Maybe London was experiencing heavy fog. Norwegian volcanic ash—no we would have heard about it. These are the types of things journalists and military flacks discuss to pass the time.
The 50-plus family members don’t have time for such inane speculation. They’ve spent too much time over the past few months thinking about the worst. They’re busy keeping an eye on all the kids and making small talk, enjoying the Chick-Fil-A and Dunkin Donuts spread the Wing has prepared for them through donations. This is an adaptable lot.
Vidar joined the Air Force Reserves in 2011 and left for boot camp when the twins were one month old. He spent eight months away at technical school, while Heather, then 23, learned how to raise her children through some stressful on-the-job training. Heather says that lengthy absence paled in comparison to his deployment to Afghanistan.
"We’d visit him every two months, so at least we got to see him [during training]," she says. "We had routine then. This was much less frequent contact, much more restrictive."
The spouses do their best to shield the domestic upheaval from their husbands. Roseline Adolphe summoned the help of her sister Edva Jean when her husband, Domingo Pena deployed in May. Elias, 9, Vicki, 7, and Anna, 5, can be a handful. She writes all the names into my notebook herself because her kids don’t know their dad’s on the plane and she doesn’t want to spoil the surprise.
"I’m more concerned with his health and how hard he’s working. He doesn’t need more worry," she says. "I’m a nurse, so we make it work."
Air Force deployments are briefer than other military branches—Army deployments, for example, lasted 15 months at the height of the Iraq War—because the planes serve almost round-the-clock. Pilots and flight crews typically deploy for two months at a time and can expect to be sent back to the warzone multiple times per year. Ground crews and maintenance men like Vidar deploy for four months.
The Air Force has a distinct advantage in that they rotate in and out with their equipment. The mammoth tankers they flew into Afghanistan are now their rides home, giving them a bit more control over the return trip.
Not everything is in the Air Force’s hands.
The planes are expected to land at 10:30 a.m.—just ten minutes before Air Force One is scheduled to take off. President Barack Obama’s got to go to New York to address the United Nations (and endorse New York City Democrat Bill De Blasio for mayor). The base locks down when Air Force One takes off. The families, which were supposed to greet the planes at the airstrip, have to watch from the edge of the hangar.
Exceptions are made for the media and pilots’ families, who hustle out to watch the airmen Plane #1.
Stephanie Akins is among the crowd, carrying five-month-old Hannah and watching rambunctious sons Will, 8, and Luke, 5. The children wear earmuffs to protect them from the deafening whir of the planes, as well as "My Daddy is My Hero" t-shirts. "NKAWTG" is written on the back: "No one Kicks Ass Without a Tank of Gas," Stephanie says. I’m hoping her husband, Capt. Stephen Akins, sports a IDKAWMW—I Don’t Kick Ass Without My Wife—apron when he mans the grill at his welcome home party.
The president’s flight is delayed an hour, allowing the troop transports to land without further delay.
The first plane pulls up and airmen disembark, forming a bucket line to transfer the camouflage duffle bags and suitcases from the plane onto waiting pick-up trucks. Twenty minutes after touchdown, the airmen board the blue bus that months earlier carried them away from their families.
The families and several Air Force personnel begin cheering as it approaches.
"What day is it?" one woman shouts.
"Homecoming day," the crowd answers.
The kids wave their hand-made, glitter-soaked "Welcome Home" posters at the bus’ tinted windows. The door opens and the cheers grow louder. Appreciative airmen exit and wave, but few find recognition among the families.
Onlookers grow quiet. The children look confused.
Plane #1, which was scheduled to land last, seems entirely made up of bachelors.
Except for Senior Airman P.J. Peters whose six-foot-five frame is easily recognized by his daughters Hayley, 12, and Aiden, 7. They sprint toward him and grip his waist. That’s where they’ll stay, bawling, for the next 10 minutes. He ambles over to his father, the man in the "Army E-7 Retired" hat, and shakes his hand. He hugs his mother. And then he turns to his superior officer, who’s doing her best to disguise the sobs.
Tech. Sgt. Lauren Peters doesn’t exactly deny that she bullied her husband into joining the Air Force in 2011. She’d been serving since 1999. It feels awkward calling a woman that lovely grizzled, but how else to describe a soldier who’s done double-digit tours in Iraq and Afghanistan working communications on 322,000-pound airplanes.
"Before when I was single I would just pick up and go. Now it’s a lot more emotional with a family, not having him here," she told me earlier in the day as we waited for the planes.
She tries to hide that emotion as Peters, a notorious kidder in the unit, razzes his kids for not growing enough while he was gone.
"I would’ve been fine if they didn’t cry," Lauren tells her husband before he has the chance to joke about the tears.
"I got a month off. It’s time to party," Peters says, but he must first introduce his family to his crewmates.
Two-and-a-half year old Elijah Vibar begins his catcall to the passengers filing from Plane #2 into the bus parked a couple hundred yards away. He just knows his daddy is out there. Domingo Pena’s kids look indifferent, still operating under the illusion that they’re waiting for their parents’ friend.
The second bus pulls up and baby Elijah can’t contain himself. He rushes across the line, but his quick-thinking mother sweeps him off the ground.
The doors fly open and prayers are answered.
Vibar emerges to a welcome embrace from Elijah and his sister.
Pena walks out to his shocked kids. His daughters rush him. His son looks up from his iPad; his jaw drops to the floor.
P.J. Peters’ entire crew is on Plane #2, allowing him to get the introductions done quickly.
But party-time will have to wait because a soldier’s work is never done.
"Deployees, we have to get you into the hangar and processed," a female airman shouts into the hugging, crying crowd.
The airmen look pained as they follow their orders.
Their wives understand. They’ve handled four months. What’s another couple minutes?