By Carson Gerber
---- — GRISSOM AIR RESERVE BASE — Ten-year-old Leif Aufderheide kept cracking the door and looking outside to a nearby Air Force hanger.
It was from the hanger his dad would soon walk. It’d been more than two months since Leif had seen his father, and he said he really missed him.
Ten minutes passed, then 20 minutes. Leif kept cracking the door and looking outside.
Then his dad was there, walking from the hanger. Leif exploded from the door, sprinted across the yard and jumped into his arms.
Erik Auferheide embraced his son, holding his head in his arms.
“This is the best part of being alive,” he said.
Air Force Commander Erik Auferheide was just one of around 40 airmen who flew into Grissom Air Reserve Base Monday afternoon after serving months overseas in southwest Asia as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The members of the 434th Air Reserve Wing based out of Grissom were supporting the in-flight refueling operations of U.S. and coalition aircraft in the region. While overseas, they were assigned to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
Family and friends gathered at the base to welcome their loved ones home, just in time for Thanksgiving. Some brought signs saying, “Welcome Back.” Others brought flowers and cookies.
“I’m very fortunate to be back for the holidays,” Erik said. “There’s people who are getting deployed right now who won’t be around for Christmas, so I’m pretty lucky.”
Since he left, Erik grew a thick, black mustache during his deployment. He asked Leif if he liked it. Leif said, not really.
Now that his dad’s back, Leif said he was looking forward to going ice skating with him and having him around to go to his basketball games.
Erik said he was looking forward to all of that, too.
“This is great,” he said. “Awesome. It feels wonderful … Now I’m looking forward to a beer and a steak.”
Friends and family started arriving at the base around 11 a.m. Three planes were set to land at Grissom starting at around noon, but Grissom officials worried the flights might have to be rerouted to Fort Wayne or Indianapolis due to high crosswinds.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the first plane touched down around 12:30 p.m.
Before they could meet their families, however, crew members had to go through customs and have blood drawn. That took around 40 minutes.
Anita Hollis said she was having a hard time waiting to see her boyfriend, Russell Smith, who maintains guidance and control systems.
“I’m just about to crawl out of my skin right now,” she said.
Hollis was especially excited because she was making a surprise trip to the base. Smith had no idea she was driving up from southern Indiana to welcome him home.
But Hollis said she couldn’t wait. Smith had been gone for over two months, but she said it felt much longer than that.
“It’s been awful with him gone,” Hollis said. “After the first month, I said, ‘This isn’t fun anymore. I want him home.’”
When Smith arrived, he was just about ready to jump into his truck and leave, since he didn’t think anyone would be there to meet him.
But Grissom workers told him he needed to come inside to “fill out some paperwork.”
When he did, there was Hollis.
The two embraced for minutes, kissing each other over and over.
“You’re lucky I didn’t jump into my truck and leave,” he told Hollis with a laugh. “I was ready to split.”
“Oh my goodness,” Hollis said. “I think I’m the one who’s the most surprised here.”
Smith said he was glad to be back so he could spend time with Hollis during Thanksgiving.
“I was very happy about that,” he said. “Now I’m ready to just sit still for a little bit and smell something other than dirt and sand.”
But not all the crew members had someone waiting for them.
That’s why Judy Friend was there. She said her church in Peru had just started a new ministry to greet soldiers coming back from deployment who didn’t have family and friends to welcome them.
“We should have thought about doing this way sooner,” Friend said. “It’s a no-brainer. Now there’s someone here to show them some support.”
As crew members came in, Friend passed out homemade cookies and greeting cards thanking them for their service.
But Kevin Peters had someone there waiting for him — his two young daughters and wife, Tara.
“It’s cold here,” Peters told his kids as he hugged them. “But where Daddy was, it was hot.”
He dug around in his backpack and pulled out a coin from England that he gave to his children.
“But let me hold onto it so you don’t lose it,” Peters said.
Doug Hays, public affairs specialist, said seeing airmen united with their families was one of the best parts of his job. He said Grissom always does its best to make them feel at home.
“We’re always anxious to welcome them back to Grissom,” he said. “It’s always happy times.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at email@example.com.