MOODY AIR FORCE BASE -- Even before the Delta Airliners carrying the 822 Security Force Squadron stopped Thursday and opened their doors, family and friends cheered. The 100-plus airmen on board who had spent more than five months in Iraq were home.

The airmen, filing down the ramps, held their heads high as they carried rifles and rucksacks. Some waved American flags.

"There's my boy, there's my boy," cried Betsy Reash when she saw her son, Staff Sgt. Gary Reash.

Betsy and her family had traveled from West Jefferson, N.C., to welcome him back -- as well as Edo, a K-9 assigned to the 822. Edo had been Gary's constant companion in Iraq.

Reash's twin sisters, Sarah and Rachael, were also there to welcome the pair. Sarah cried tears of joy. "God did it. God brought him back and kept him safe," she said.

"God is good. We said a lot of prayers," Betsy said. "We're proud of him. He's done this country honor, and his dog Edo ... his dog is his partner and would give up his life for him, so we love the dog, too."

After clearing customs, the weary airmen boarded buses and were transported to the 822nd Squadron area, where more families and friends waited to greet them. Senior Airman Brian Mullane is a veteran of other deployments, but the deployment to Iraq was special to him.

"It felt like we were doing something," Mullane said. "We were right there in Iraq, and we were the first security force unit in. You really felt like you were there on the front lines."

Airman 1st Class Timothy Phillips was greeted by his wife Jessica. The couple have been married a little over a year, and he has been gone about nine months of that time, Jessica said.

Like many of the 822nd, Phillips has been deployed before. In his case, he was in Djibouti, Africa, during his first deployment. Both areas are known for hot weather, but the hostile conditions in Iraq made this deployment more intense.

What kept him going from day to day? "Waiting to get home to see my wife," he said.

This return home proved special for Staff Sgt. Joseph Cuthbertson. He was holding his daughter, Sara, who had just turned 2 when he left to go to Iraq in March. Standing close to him was his wife, Wendy, who's expecting their second child, a girl, in three weeks. Thinking of his family helped him to get through difficult times.

The nature of the mission in Iraq also strengthened Cuthbertson's resolve. "It was having a sense of purpose out there that made a big difference," Cuthbertson said. "At first to me, it was about the weapons of mass destruction and getting rid of that threat, but that's because I didn't know anything about what the people are going through out there. After talking to the people -- that gave a whole new sense of purpose out there. It's all about knowing those people are free because of what we did. That made all the difference in the world."

To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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