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Hill airmen return from Afghanistan; unit to be deactivated in July

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — It's a bittersweet moment to step off of the massive Delta plane to the cheers of hundreds of family, friends and fellow airmen.

That's how the 34th Fighter Squadron, known as the "Rude Rams," and its accompanying 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit were greeted Friday morning, following an 18-hour flight from Germany.

That's the sweet part: being back in the U.S., hugging your wife and kids, cracking open a beer, looking forward to your own bed.

More than 200 airmen — pilots and maintainers — had been deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan since early January. Some arrived home Thursday, but most came home Friday.

Then there's the bitter part: Because of Air Force restructuring, the 34th Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit will be deactivated July 16.

Two of the fighter squadron's planes already have gone to the South Dakota Air National Guard. More will leave to go to South Dakota and Italy at a later date.

That means the Rude Rams will take a break. Pilots who have trained together and maintenance personnel will be transferred to other units at Hill Air Force Base and to other bases.

"We'll be bummed out about it," said Capt. Tommy Werner, a pilot who returned home Friday. "But it's the nature of the business."

Werner's commander, Lt. Col. Brad Lyons, said he's proud of the squadron, which did everything it was asked by commanders, providing air support to troops on the ground and maintaining planes to keep them combat ready.

They worked six to seven days a week, 12 hours a day.

It was squadron's maintenance personnel who kept an F-16 with tail number 2119 flying for 40 straight Code 1 sorties. That means the plane returns from its mission without a mechanical issue.

"It was a perfect airplane 40 times in a row," Lyons said. "I've never heard of that in my entire Air Force career."

"It's not a bad way to go out," said Col. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill, of which the 34th is a part. "It was a fantastic deployment. Everyone came back"

Lyons is optimistic that the 34th Fighter Squadron will return one day to Hill Air Force Base, but not as an F-16 squadron.

"We'll be back as an F-35 squadron," he predicted.

The Air Force is still conducting an environmental review of bases for placement of the next-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

Zobrist said he's confident that Hill Air Force Base remains a strong candidate because of its access to the Utah Test and Training Range.

But for now, Tech. Sgt. Joshua Worthen, who came home after two months in Afghanistan, can catch up with his wife, Anna, and their boys.

"It's wonderful (to be back)," he said, adding that he plans to stay home with the family before getting back to regular work life.

e-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com twitter: dnewspolitics