For Staff Sgt. Stephen Mathews and the other 175 or so F-16 pilots and crew members — men and women who were thrown into intense combat operations almost immediately after arriving in Afghanistan in October — it was time to drop their heavy gear, relax and celebrate with their families. They hugged husbands, lifted sons high into the air, laughed at the welcome-home signs little sisters made out of tinsel and swung girlfriends into long, long, long kisses.
They were home for the holidays.
Sara Prieto screamed and shot forward when she saw her husband stride in through the bright sunlight from the Joint Base Andrews runway outside. Mathews grinned and grabbed her and their 21
2-year-old daughter for a tight hug. Lily looked up at her dad and giggled, knowing what would come next. He dipped her backward, her shiny black hair tossing, her red tulle skirt billowing, and swung her back up again as she laughed and laughed.
“Daddy,” Lily Mathews said, putting her head on his chest.
There were families who had endured countless separations. And there were airmen returning from their first deployment, such as Airman 1st Class Ray Wilkerson of Arnold, who remembered the shock of hearing bullets overnight and the code for dead bodies being removed the next day.
“I’m glad to see my family and not be in a war zone — be able to breathe,” said Wilkerson, 21.
Rebecca Schriner woke up at 4 a.m. in Woodbridge, eager to see her husband again. They are expecting a baby in March, and she was looking forward to having adult conversations again in the evenings after her son and 3-year-old daughter fall asleep.
Daniela Woo, who dressed her pit bull Trixie in a fur-trimmed Santa cape and bow for the occasion, was looking forward to buying furniture: She and her boyfriend bought a house just before he left, and the whole first floor is still empty.
A little girl spun in circles in the middle of the crowd, holding a U.S. flag, watching the shadow dip and flicker on the hangar floor. An airman blinked tears out of his eyes when he saw his wife.
The first time Mathews was deployed after his wedding, his wife called him and told him she was pregnant. The last time, he was gone for months and Lily didn’t recognize him when he came home.
This time, when Lily saw his ID tags at home, she would touch them and say, “Daddy. Daddy.”
Prieto is a dog groomer who works most weekends, so Mathews, a 26-year-old systems engineer for the State Department, used to take care of their daughter on his days off. He would sleep in with Lily, then take her to the National Zoo, near their home, to see the flamingos, or to the National Air and Space Museum to see the planes. He bought her a toy toolbox because she kept playing with his real tools. And he would toss her in the air and pretend to dunk her.
Lily stayed up extra late Thursday night, probably sensing how wound up her mother was. And when they got to Andrews, Lily kept saying, “Daddy. Daddy,” when she saw all the men in uniform.
Prieto, her mother and sister had put up a Christmas tree but waited for Mathews to come home to decorate it. They were going to go to a French restaurant in Georgetown for dinner Friday night, and to the zoo, all lit up for the holidays.
But first, they were going to IHOP for breakfast, as they do before and after every deployment. He always gets an everything omelette, Prieto orders Belgian waffles, and Lily eats scrambled eggs and puts the raspberries from the waffles onto her fingers, like little red caps.
“This is what I wanted for Christmas,” he said, putting his hand on his daughter’s shoulder.
He shouldered his 50-pound backpack again, picked up the blanket Prieto had made from his old uniforms and headed home. “This right here.”