JACKSONVILLE – Anticipation mounted as the first of two planes landed on the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville Monday. Families began the walk across the tarmac toward the taxiing P-8A …
JACKSONVILLE – Anticipation mounted as the first of two planes landed on the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville Monday. Families began the walk across the tarmac toward the taxiing P-8A Poseidon aircraft as the second plane touched down.
The two planes held about 40 members of the VP-16 “War Eagles,” men and women returning home after almost seven months running support missions out of Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy.
While in Italy, members of VP-16 offered support for the USS George H. W. Bush Carrier strike group as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, fighting the Islamic State in the Mediterranean, according to base officials. The group completed a total of around 4,500 flight hours during the deployment.
Among the men were husbands and fathers, six of whom would see their newborn children for the first time after stepping off the planes. Starke resident Jacob Bennett was one of those first-time fathers. Jogging from the plane, he scooped up his five-month-old daughter Ellie out of his wife’s arms, lifted her up, kissed her and held her to his jumpsuited chest for the first time.
Bennett struggled to find words to describe the feeling, overwhelmed with the compounded happiness of returning home from deployment and meeting his daughter for the first time in person.
“This is really a new feeling,” Bennett said. “This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in my life. It’s fabulous.”
Bennett shifted the child to his hip and kissed his wife as the young family prepared to go home together for the first time ever.
Across the runway, Middleburg residents Kriston Smit, her daughter Lezlie Baker, and one-year-old son John Smit reunited with Brian Smit. The family has more experience with deployments, but for Brian, this was his first time leaving his young son, and the first time they were apart for a serious weather event like Hurricane Irma.
“I was nervous because it was our first storm without him,” Kriston said. “He was calling us and wanted us to evacuate. It was really scary but we talked up until we lost internet.”
The family and their home made it through the storm, and with Brian home, their focus is now on spending time together and hosting a welcome home party with friends and family. However, Brian has some favorite family activities that are top priority when he returns home.
“What does daddy do when he comes home?” Kriston said.
“Watch Star Trek!” Lezlie said, “And building LEGOs with me!”
“He usually wants to go to Chipotle, too,” Kriston said.
NAS Jax does what it can to make the spacious hangars feel comfortable for visiting families. This homecoming saw a couple dozen children, all full of energy and clad in American flag T-shirts or youth-sized jumpsuits. Sailors provided a bouncy house for the kids, as well as a huge area featuring a material that kids and cargo plane staff love: bubble wrap. The wrap was taped to the floor and offered kids, and some adults – who snuck over to pop a bubble or two – the chance at an almost endless sea of poppable bubbles.