April 10, 2012
When Lynn Gibbons said she "almost cried" when she saw her son Tuesday, a family member standing nearby laughed and corrected her: "Almost cried? No, you did cry."
Gibbons' son, Sheldon Williams, was one of 25 members of the 125th Security Forces Squadron, 125th Fighter Wing, from the Florida Air National Guard that returned from Afghanistan Tuesday. They landed at Jacksonville International Airport a little before 3 p.m.
Williams, 23, was all smiles after he reunited with his family, which includes a daughter born while he was stationed overseas. Tuesday marked the first time Williams got to hold Shaliyah, who was born Dec. 6.
"It's pretty emotional. I can't even. ..." he said before trailing off.
Check out more photos of the squadron's homecoming
That was how many of the airmen felt when they walked into the airport's courtyard. A corridor made of more than a hundred people greeted them. When the airmen came around the bend in the concourse, the crowd applauded, took pictures, shook their hands and hugged them. Most were family. Some were friends, like Jason Behr, who missed two classes at the University of North Florida to see his friend Landon Paschal back home.
"I know he enjoys what he does, but it's a big sacrifice," Behr said. "We missed him."
Other members of the crowd, like Mark Frank, were simply local supporters.
"We're here just to support the whole Guard," Frank said.
Frank brought his two children — 11-year-old Wyatt and 7-year-old Natasha, both holding American flags — to help welcome the airmen back.
"I want them to realize what we're doing here, the pride we have," he said. "We're happy they're all here, alive and well."
The squadron deployed in July and was eventually stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where the men and women performed several duties providing round-the-clock, in-depth security for a base of thousands.
Tuesday was the first time they had seen their family and friends in roughly eight months.
"It sort of feels like the Super Bowl," Jason Chapman, a tech sergeant with the squadron, said of the crowd that welcomed the group. "It makes it worthwhile, knowing we were over there serving and all these people are here."
As Chapman spoke, his two children — 7-year-old Hailey and 2-year-old Cayden — circled, hugging his legs.
Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw spoke during a short ceremony following the airmen's arrival.
"We want to thank ... these airmen for answering the nation's call, for defending the nation with professionalism that everyone expected." he said. "We want to thank the families because we know you sacrifice so much to preserve the family while they are gone. We could not do this without you."
George Yeazitzis was there to welcome back his grandson, Thomas Yeazitzis. The Orange Park resident has missed him, especially during holidays, he said.
"Without Thomas, it's not the same," George said.
The family did not have big plans for the rest of the day. Thomas just wanted a quiet evening at home with loved ones.
That's the same thing Sheldon Williams wanted. The Gainesville resident planned on spending time with his family, his fiancee and two children. He also said he looked forward to a home-cooked meal. Pressed on what that would be, he held his hands up in the shape of a circle and said, "A big hamburger made with American, angus beef."
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