TOLEDO EXPRESS AIRPORT -- More than 200 members of the 180th Fighter Wing returned home to Toledo Express Airport on Monday. It was a big celebration, but with heavy hearts, as they returned from almost 8 weeks in Iraq without one of the unit's pilots.
From the moment the chartered plane came into sight, there were cheers and feelings of relief. Fresh off their 16-hour flight from Germany, airmen were able to wave from the plane's steps, then ran into the arms of their loved ones for emotional reunions. "It was great," said Tech Sgt. Scott Kucszmauls of the 180th. "Nothing better than seeing your family after a long deployment like that."
His son, Gabe, was glad to have his father home, especially since the fathers and grandfathers of the 180th missed Father's Day last month. "I missed him very much," said Gabe Kucszmauls. "There are a lot of things you want to do with your dad now that he's home."
They weren't the only one glad to see their loved ones. Tech Sgt. Lauren Johnson said her husband tried to trick her. "He told me he wasn't going to be here," said Johnson, "So it was great to actually be able to touch him after such a long time being away."
Yet amid the happiness, there is still grief. Lt. Col. Kevin Sonnenberg of McClure, a pilot for the 180th, died June 15th when his F-16 crashed in Iraq. The U.S. Central Air Command says Sonnenberg was on a close air support mission just after midnight. The statement says the crash was an accident, but didn't give more detail than that. Sonnenberg was the only one on-board.
"Amazing courage and strength on the part of our people getting back to their jobs after that tragedy happened, and finishing it with professionalism and dedication," said Commander Scott Reed of the 112th Fighter Squadron. The 112th is one of the units that makes up the 180th.
Those who were waiting for airmen to come home had the same feeling. "It's tough. Your heart has to go out for that family and just all the families who have lost loved ones," said Joan Fehlberg, the sister of an airman.
While in Iraq, the planes and people of the 180th were deployed with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base. They flew surveillance and support missions to help ground troops.
The 180th Fighter Wing is based at Toledo Express Airport, a joint civilian-military facility about 10 miles from downtown Toledo.