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Joyous return from Mideast for 130 at Hill

A.F. unit flew 600-plus combat sorties during its 3-month stint

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — As their first wedding anniversary approaches in late September, senior airman Michael Kaffenberger and his wife, Messa, just want to spend time together.

It's all he anticipated while he was deployed to the Middle East, working on F-16 avionics for Hill's 388th Fighter Squadron.

"If we're just hangin' around the home, getting fat, that's all I want to do," he said, laughing.

On Monday, Kaffenberger and about 130 others returned to Utah after more than three months in the Persian Gulf region, where they supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were part of Aerospace Expeditionary Force 1, involved "as the Air Force transitioned back from its wartime posture to a more steady state operation," according to a Hill statement.

About half a dozen were pilots. Most of the rest were maintenance and support personnel.

"It was a kind of a culture shock," Kaffenberger said, ". . . living with 100-some-odd guys, 90 days in close quarters."

Messa corrected him, saying it was 109 days. Then she corrected herself: It felt like "2 million," she said.

"Oh, I haven't been able to sleep a couple of days," because she was so excited about her husband's return, she added.

Maj. James Wilson, spokesman for Hill, said the unit flew more than 600 combat sorties during the deployment, totaling 3,000 combat hours of flying and traveling more than a cumulative 1.5 million miles. Under Hill rules, details of the operations were not released.

The family of Chief Master Sgt. Brian Janroy waited at the front of a group of 150 or 200 Air Force personnel and family members as a chartered civilian jet taxied toward them on the runway. Jonathan Janroy, 12, wore a tall Uncle Sam hat and waved a flag.

"Oh, I'm so excited. So excited," said Becky Janroy, the sergeant's mother. Rhonda Janroy, his wife, carried "welcome home" balloons. Also present was Rhonda and Brian Janroy's son, 9-year-old Zachary.

"Here they come!" Jonathan exclaimed, pointing with his flag. "Yay!"

Dozens of Air Force members in buff desert fatigues were filing off the jet. He began waving the flag.

Suddenly, the sergeant was there — a tall, tan man in sunglasses — kissing his wife and hugging the family. Standing on the runway, surrounded by joyous reunions, they presented him with a gift — a teddy bear in camouflage.

"It was a challenge," Janroy told the Deseret Morning News, speaking of the wartime deployment. "All of us, we learned a lot. The young troops grew up."

They were "exposed to rigors of desert life, and an environment they're not used to," he said. They had an opportunity to do their jobs and to "understand why we train so hard, because when we hit the ground we've got to hit it running."

He said he wants to spend quiet time with the family.

"We're going to go camping," he said.

Master Sgt. Doug Stutzman, who sported a stubble of a beard, said he had a couple of anxious days overseas when he learned that the family was in an accident.

"Car was totaled, but they're fine," he said. "Just one vehicle less in the family, that's all."

What was life in the Middle East like?

"Extremely hot. Very busy," Stutzman said. They worked "long, long hours the first couple of days."

His wife, Elizabeth, greeted him with their son, Dalton, 4, and daughter, Keziah, who had just turned 2. Elizabeth Stutzman said she was "excited, thrilled that he's back."

"Feels fabulous, sir," said Master Sgt. Raymond Weinmann, responding to a query about being home.

It was his ninth rotation to the desert.

"I wouldn't trade this feeling for anything in the world. It's hard while you're there, but this makes it all worth it," he said.

"Oh, it feels great" to be back, said Airman 1st Class Rawn Sahai, greeting his wife, Nikol.

"It was hot. It was a lot of work, put in a lot of hours. But everyone was focused on the mission."

The key was the support they received from home, both from their families and the American people, he said.

Senior Airman Dusti Tolman, a medical technician, snuggled her 2-year-old, Dillon. She was one of the troops who deployed. Her husband, Toby, stayed home and cared for their son.

"It was hot," she said. "There were times we were really busy, at times we weren't. It wasn't as bad as some of the troops have it over there, so I can't complain."

Besides her family, she was looking forward to "cool weather and good food."

Toby had lots of help from Dillon's grandparents in caring for the child.

"There were a few hard times," he said, when Dillon would be "going to bed and miss his mommy and cry a lot, but besides that he did really good.

"He got to talk to his mom on the phone every now and again. That helped a lot, made him a lot happier."

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com