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F-16 support team from Hill Air Force Base returns home early from Afghanistan

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The success of a troop surge in Afghanistan is being credited for the early return of about 30 airmen from the 388th and 419th fighter wings on Friday.

The group was part of a deployment of F-16s, pilots and support personnel who that left Utah in September and were expected to be providing close-air support for ground forces until March.

"Due to the combatant commanders' judgment in theater, they determined they could do with a little less presence by our airmen, so it was a blessing for us to be able to bring these guys back early, pat them on the back and tell them 'job well done,' " said Col. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill.

News reports from Afghanistan earlier this week said a review of the troop surge ordered by the president a year ago are expected to say the surge has improved Afghan security.

Dena Duclair said she had just planned on being at work on Friday until she got a call from Dustin, one of her 20-year-old sons, who was part of the deployed group. "He said 'What are you doing on Friday? How about coming to meet me at the airport?' " she recalled.

Dustin's twin is in the Navy, training in Illinois. "Now I get both of my sons home for Christmas," Duclair said. "I'm just so excited he's home. I didn't think he was coming home until March."

Christian Hand and wife Michelle said they were able to communicate regularly while he was in Afghanistan. "It almost doesn't feel real, but it is, because he's right here," Michelle said moments after her husband of eight months and the rest of the returning group got off a bus that brought them to the base from Salt Lake City International Airport. "It's the best Christmas present ever."

The 388th, an active-duty wing, and the 419th, an Air Force Reserve wing, have supported F-16s at Hill for some time. They started working jointly about 5 years ago and have been actively involved in military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two fighter wings are on their third deployment in the past year and still have about 300 people in Afghanistan.

Most of the returning airmen are the same age or younger than the fighter jets they maintained and loaded with bombs. On the other hand, the fighter wings, especially the Reserve 419th wing, have exceptionally experienced maintenance crews, Zobrist said. "They're 20-year-old airplanes, so it takes a lot of work to keep them flying."

The fighter wings from Hill fly 10 to 20 flights daily out of Afghanistan, Zobrist said. "I just talked to one of our crew chiefs, and he said it was very motivating to see the airplane come back without bombs on it because they know all the work they put into making that airplane fly all paid off because it protected the American and coalition service members on the ground. Who knows how many people they saved because of the work they did on the ground."

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com