By JB Clark
TUPELO – After hours of waiting on a delayed flight, families and friends of the 858th Engineering Company gathered Thursday near the runway at Tupelo Regional Airport to welcome the National Guard unit home from Afghanistan.
It was a night full of firsts for some of the soldiers, who were deployed in August to conduct retrograde operations and a base closure.
Sgt. Robert Watts of Oxford was greeted by his 3-month-old son, Berkley, whom he had seen only over Skype calls until about 3 a.m. Thursday morning.
When the soldiers ran through the runway gate to greet their families, Watts and his wife got mixed up in the excited group and spent the first few minutes trying to find each other, wife Brooke pushing a stroller with a sign telling people to get out of the way, “I’m meeting my daddy for the first time.” Robert Watts turned to a fellow soldier and said in frustration, “I just need to find my wife right now.”
As the crowd began to slowly disperse they found each other, embraced and shared a kiss 10 months in the making before Robert took his son in his arms.
“It is just an awesome feeling right here – I can’t even explain it,” he said while cradling his baby boy in his arms. “It’s been a long three months. I’ve seen him – and I saw his birth and all that good stuff on Skype – but this is the first connection with him and it’s so special.”
Brooke Watts said she was so excited she couldn’t even explain how she was feeling while she waited at the airport Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
“My heart has not left my stomach since I pulled out of Oxford,” she said of getting to see her husband after being a single mother of three during his deployment. “I actually told him if I go to the grocery store and don’t show back up for two weeks, don’t be mad. I need a break. I have not had one night without all the kids since he left.”
The plane carrying the 858th Engineering Company, which is based in Calhoun City, was originally set to arrive in Tupelo between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Wednesday night but lightning kept the plane on the ground at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey until about 1 a.m.
The late arrival time didn’t stop hundreds of family members and friends from gathering at the airport with signs and flags. A few minutes before the soldiers’ arrival someone spotted a light over the airport. Word spread until everyone in the crowd was pointing to the sky and cheering. The cheering continued until the plane was on the ground and then started again as the soldiers left the plane.
After about 15 minutes of unloading, a short drill and a prayer, the gates were opened and soldiers flooded through looking for families, slowly at first as the families were standing behind a barrier.
One family member, holding a sign reading, “I traded in my Ken doll for a G.I. Joe,” jumped the barrier and then jumped into her soldier’s arms. She was followed by the children of another soldier and soon the space between soldiers and civilians became a sea of embraces.
Alana Sullivan of Nettleton held a neon green sign that said, “I have spent 200 days away from you, countless hours on Skype, unlimited amounts of texts and Facebook messages, but meeting you for the first time ever now is priceless. Here I am just like I promised.”
She met Tim Langley on Facebook a few months into Langley’s deployment and the two have maintained a relationship online for the last six months, but hadn’t met until Thursday morning.
“I got here at 9 p.m. and It’s been a long wait,” she said. “I’m excited and nervous.”
The two made plans to watch Fourth of July fireworks for their first date.
Sgt. Lisa Brady of Bruce was inundated with affection from her four children, husband and parents Thursday morning.
“It feels amazing, absolutely amazing,” she said as she moved from one child to the next, squeezing each one tightly.
The 858th Engineering Company, while in Afghanistan, converted three forward operating bases into tactical bases for Afghan National Army use.
This was the company’s third deployment in 10 years. They were deployed in 2003 to help set up operations in the earlier stages of the war on terrorism and over the last 10 months they have been working to close down those operations in Afghanistan.