SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Squadron VMFA 323 out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar came home after a 10-month deployment in the Middle East, their homes very different due to the pandemic.
The squadron, nicknamed Death Rattlers, deployed ahead of schedule in May, cutting out time with family they usually have before deployment, to keep the squadron from catching the coronavirus.
"I don't think anyone's done a deployment quite like this before," Madison Arenchild said. Her fiance is a pilot in the squadron.
Mothers at home alone and spouses distant from friends and family during the pandemic, taking a harder toll during the deployment.
"It takes a village, like that phrase means so much to me now," Elle Hempen, whose husband is a pilot, said she took each day of deployment one at a time.
"We have a spouses group and we do zoom happy hours," Arenchild said those are a huge help.
Two extensions kept the Death Rattlers away for nearly a year.
"Difficult, really thankful they were able to not have any issues on their own aircraft carrier, that's a huge blessing among all this craziness," Arenchild said.
As the hours passed more friends and families gathered on the flight line at MCAS Miramar Thursday afternoon. You could feel the excitement and anticipation in the air.
"Oh my gosh it's just relief, just straight relief. he's home, he's safe," Hempen said about her husband.
The jets thundered overhead in formation around 1 p.m. Time seemed to slow down as they landed one by one. Spouses and children strained at the line they were told to wait behind.
Then a Marine yelled, "Go get them ladies, and kids go get your dads!!"
Tears, hugs, and kisses followed. Embraces were strong, smiles spread wide and conversation flowed as spouses and Marines hurried to catch one another up on what they missed.
One Marine learned his family adopted a puppy. Others were getting reacquainted with their babies.
When it comes to their next mission, Fighter Pilot Meleah Martin said, "I mean a little nervous but I mean it'll be fine. We've kinda been in our own bubble so it kinda feels like it hasn't happened to us yet."
Arenchild and other spouses are leading them into the new normal and excited to catch up on quality time.
The squadron will transition to fly F-35Bs in the next couple of years.