EVEN for an outsider it was emotional to witness the moment our fighting men came home.
Families, gathered in the RAF Honington hangar named after Great Escape survivor Jimmy James MC, went quiet when it was announced the 162 returning men of 15 Squadron RAF Regiment had arrived from RAF Mildenhall, where their final flight from Afghanistan had landed. The giant doors slid to reveal them standing in line outside before they started walking in to applause.
Then, one woman broke ranks to run to her loved one and everyone surged forward. Reactions ranged from excited hugs to proud fathers using the excuse of photographing soldier sons to bolster stiff upper lips.
Karen Lane had been waiting, with her grandson Jake alongside in a pushchair, for husband Flt Sgt Peter Lane, son SAC Steven Lane and her daughter Nikita’s fiancé Cpl James Power.
Peter flew out ahead of the main force, who left in November, so it was the first time he had seen Jake and his verdict was ‘tremendous, beautiful’. He added: “I kept in contact with my wife daily and every email had a picture with it.”
It was his first time in Afghanistan but he has been in Iraq. “There’s a lot of differnce,” he said. “It’s like going into a Third World country.”
What will remain with him from the tour? “Seeing my son go over as a boy and bringing him back as a man,” he said.
Steven admitted: “I’ve seen a different part of the world, another culture. I feel I know more and am more mature.”
He sais he saw a huge change in his own son, who was only two weeks old when he left. “He’s smiling now,” he said. “He’s awake during the day and sleeps at night – I was expecting sleepless nights.”
Other first-timers spoke of how well training had prepared them for action. SAC Joe Dixon called the tour ‘a laugh with the lads’, but added more seriously: “You’re doing your job. It was hard at times, but it was good.”
His friend SAC Lee Broster was surprised at their reception from locals. “They were all friendly there, brilliant,” he said. “I had expected them not to be but they were big.”
Commanding officer Sq Ldr Ed Cripps, holding two-year-old Henry and guarded by Bernard, six, said: “It’s fantastic to be back. It’s been a really intense tour with a lot of operations to protect Kandahar airfield.
“The guys have endured ever- present danger and hardship but with character, resolve and humour. Support from family while we’ve been away, especially at Christmas, has been tremendous.”
His wife Jo had been planning ahead because, the wives have been arranging a good welcome, complete with goody bags of items donated by local businesses. They included a copy of the Bury Free Press, which Jo felt would help the men catch up with home news.