Marines return from Iraq tour

BEAUFORT -- Friends, family members -- and even a few dogs -- braved a sweltering Lowcountry afternoon to welcome home a group of Beaufort Marines.

The Silver Eagles of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 and a group of Stingers from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31 returned safe and sound to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on Tuesday after a seven-month deployment to Al Asad, a U.S. airbase in the western Iraqi province of Al Anbar.

Family members held up homemade signs, video cameras and cameras as the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 that transported the Marines from

Baltimore to Beaufort taxied near the squadron's hangar.

As the squadron stepped off the jet, Marines from other squadrons and members of VMFA-115 and MALS 31, who had arrived earlier, lined the asphalt in two rows to greet their fellow Marines.

"Once you see your Marine get past those Marines, have at 'em!" yelled a Marine in charge of the homecoming to a group of about 100 friends and family members.

After seven months of being apart, eager family members and friends needed -- and heeded -- little instruction as their loved ones came into view.

"It's absolutely surreal," said Maj. Michael Juenger, executive officer of VMFA-115. "You go from being in the deserts of Iraq to being back in the lush, green landscapes of the United States. It's wonderful to be back in the Lowcountry."

Outside the hangar, children leapt into the arms of their parents, and family members and Marines wiped tears as they kissed their loved ones for the first time in seven months. One Beaufort Marine got a literal taste of home. In addition to seeing daughters Morgan and Madison and wife Jess, who is set to give birth to the couple's third child in the next month, Sgt. Lukas Atwell had a hot pizza waiting for him courtesy of his fellow Marines in the air station's public affairs office. Atwell was embedded with VMFA-115 as a combat correspondent.

The Silver Eagles' return brought an end to a historic deployment.

The squadron was the Marine Corps' first forward-air-controller capable, single-seat F-18 Hornet squadron to deploy to Al Asad.

"We had to undergo a little additional training, but all of our guys did an excellent job and really came together over there," Juenger said. "We really couldn't asked for a better performance out of anyone."

The squadron's return to Beaufort will be completed next week when VMFA's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Charles E. Ehlert, returns home with the Stingers' 12 F-18s.