Holding a sign offering “free hugs for all who need love,” Boisean Kristin Sempsrott stood outside an aircraft hangar at Gowen Field late Sunday evening, waiting for an Atlas Air 747 bringing home more than 200 men and woman from the Idaho Air National Guard’s 124th Fighter Wing.
Since April, the group — including pilots, plane maintainers and support staff — was deployed to Incirlik air base in Turkey. The United States has based A-10 attack planes, KC-135 refueling tankers, along with surveillance aircraft and armed drones there.
Idaho Air National Guard A-10s, also known as “Warthogs,” were sent there, although for security reasons the military won’t say how many. The planes provided air support for ground troops.
Sempsrott waited for her brother, Matthew Sempsrott, to get off the plane. Nearby, her daughter, Summer, 8, and her brother’s daughters, 7-year-old twins Mila and Odin, held their own sign. It read “Thank you for your service our heroes. Welcome home.”
The plane didn’t land until 11:02 p.m. and it took another 11 minutes before the Air Guard members began walking down the steps and onto the Gowen Field tarmac. That didn’t matter any to Kristin Sempsrott and hundreds of other family members and friends who turned out to welcome the military members home.
“Their sacrifice is greater than ours,” she said.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and other mayors and dignitaries from around the Treasure Valley stood at the bottom of the stairs and shook hands with each service member as they walked toward the hangar.
“They’ve done an amazing job overseas and we’re just extremely excited to be able to welcome them back home to Idaho and reunite them with family and friends this evening,” 2nd Lt. Cassie Morlock said during a press briefing ahead of the plane’s arrival.
Col. Timothy Donnellan, commander of the 124th Fighter Wing, praised the members of his wing for their six-month tour in Turkey.
“They missed birthdays, a couple of newborn babies and graduations while they were gone. We appreciate the work they did and the sacrifices they made,” Donnellan said.
Senior Airman Jennifer Foley of Boise said she felt exhilarated when she stepped off the plane and saw the hundreds of people who greeted them.
“It was a good feeling to see that. It was late on Sunday night, with the beginning of the work week on Monday and not everyone has the day off. It was nice seeing people come out to support what we did,” Foley said.
“I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and taking a nice shower where you’re not necessarily showering with a bunch of other people,” said Foley, a human resources assistant for the State of Idaho Military Division in her civilian job.
Foley, who has served with the Air National Guard for four years, said she was proud of the work the 124th Fighter Wing did in Turkey, flying combat missions against the Islamic State.
“We were making a very good impact, so you can’t ask for more. Our pilots did what they needed to do, our maintainers, we did what we needed to do to make sure that everyone got home safe. You couldn’t have asked for a better group of people,” Foley said.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Jackson, who said he was proud of the work the 124th Fighter Wing did, was glad to be back on American soil.
“I was very proud that everyone was able to go over there and do what we did to support our mission and come back as a team,” Jackson said. “I was just very, very proud of everybody.”
He said he was also impressed with the large crowd that showed up to welcome the service members home.
“I know there are people who have to get up to go to work and young kids who have to go to school that showed up and are here. It’s a great thing after being gone so long,” Jackson said.