By Gary Mitchell
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Capt. Christina “Thumper” Hopper beamed when she was handed a bouquet of red roses by her husband.
“This is great,” said Hopper, one of 12 F-16 pilots deployed during the Iraqi war with the 524th Fighter Squadron who touched down their jets early Monday afternoon on Cannon’s runway. “He knows I love roses. It was awesome. I’m the only one to get roses. None of the guys got them.”
“I’m excited about her coming home,” her husband, Capt. Aaron Hopper, an F-16 pilot deployed with the 522nd Fighter Squadron as part of the nation’s Homeland Security efforts to Washington state. “She’s been involved in a great effort. I’m really proud of her. We’ll probably take some vacation time and take a short trip together. It feels great. We can get to know each other once again.”
The returning jets came to a halt in front of a crowd of about 300 flag-waving, placard-carrying, cheering spectators, “God Bless America” was playing on the loud speakers.
One banner read: “Welcome Home, Big D,” hung in place on the flightline fence by Bill and Marian Lyons of Crystal Lake, Ill.
“It’s for my son, David,” Bill Lyons said. “They called him ‘Big D’ in high school.”
When Capt. David Lyons strode across the tarmac, his mother hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
“I was just happy — very happy he’s home safe,” she said.
“It’s awesome,” David Lyons said of the welcome home celebration. “Thanks to the awesome support we had, we made it back home. After the 11-hour flight we just had, I’m ready to go home and relax. My wife and I have two labs we call our kids.”
“It’s absolutely amazing,” said David’s wife, Kara. “This is probably the most patriotic day of my life. I’m extremely proud of what they accomplished. They went over to do a job, and they achieved it.”
“We plan to escape to Steamboat Springs, Colo., for a week,” she said. “It’s very beautiful and peaceful. I think he’ll enjoy it because it will be green.”
Col. Robert “Rowdy” Yates, 27th Fighter Wing commander, commended the returning Cannon warriors.
“I’m feeling a lot of pride,” he said. “We’ve got a unit coming back where they’ve set the standard. They’re American heroes. They did their duty. They were deployed in December, and never skipped a beat. It’s unprecedented. They’ve done a bang-up job with their skill and cunning. That’s why we call them the world’s most lethal warfighters.”
Lt. Col. Thomas “Bergy” Berghoff, 524th Fighter Squadron commander, said his unit was “ready to go when it (the war) happened.”
“Our guys executed above their experience level,” he said. “We didn’t lose an aircraft. It was awesome. We flew over 1,400 mission sorties, which is about three times the peacetime rate. We flew through a lot of triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) and unguided SAMs (surface-to-air missiles). Early in the war, it was heavier, and as the days went on, the threats became lower. When you flew, the rule was ‘see and avoid.’ We paved the way for the ground troops. We saved a lot of lives. The people of Iraq are now liberated, and the people of Iraq were very happy we were there.”