Marines in an F-18 Hornet squadron flying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom returned to Beaufort on Friday, after a nine-month deployment that included missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Members of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312 (VFMA-312), an F/A-18 squadron nicknamed the "Checkerboards," arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on Thursday and Friday. Most returned Friday, receiving a rainy, happy welcome from family after a 16-day journey west from the Arabian Gulf, Lt. Col. Nathan Miller said.
"It feels great to be back," he said. "That was my third deployment in four years. Marines are fairly stoic by nature, but there were a lot of smiling faces today."
Miller said some of the Marines in his squadron had family as far west as Texas and Ohio in Beaufort to greet them. Others had children on hand they had never met, he said.
VMFA-312 deployed in July 2013 and served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom -- the official name of military actions in Afghanistan -- aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The squadron flew 532 missions over Afghanistan totaling 3,277 flight hours, air station public affairs officer Capt. Jordan Cochran said.
In the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, VMFA-312 flew alongside French forces on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, taking part in defense exercises and search-and-rescue missions. The squadron also took part in Nautical Artist in Saudi Arabia, a joint exercise with the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force, Cochran said.
VMFA-312's homecoming marked the return of the last Marine Corps F/A-18 squadron deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom.
"It's pretty neat to be a part of history and to close the door for the Hornets like that," he said.
Miller and his wingman, Capt. Matthew Dupre, flew the squadron's final mission, an overwatch of two vehicle convoys and a foot patrol in the northeast regions of Afghanistan. Dupre said he "felt a rush of pride" to be part of the final flight.
Cochran said the squadron would continue flying F/A-18's, not the new F-35B Lightning II's coming to MCAS Beaufort in the summer.
Two other squadrons housed at MCAS Beaufort are currently deployed. VMFA(AW)-224, known as the Bengals, are in the western Pacific Ocean, as are a detachment from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31 supporting them, Cochran said.
The two squadrons deployed from MCAS Beaufort in January, spending seven months training and conducting security missions, he said.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.