WARNER ROBINS -- On Sunday night, Cera Shell put the finishing touches on a homemade U.S. Air Force dress for her 7-month-old daughter -- a few hours before she saw her husband, Senior Airman Tyler Shell, for the first time in months.
Tyler Shell, of Bonaire, is one of 50 troops from the Air National Guard who returned home Monday after a three-month deployment to southwest Asia. As part of the 116th Air Control Wing, they are primarily operations, maintenance and support personnel. About five soldiers from the U.S. Army also returned Monday to Robins Air Force Base.
Its amazing to see how much shes changed and grown, Tyler Shell said as he held his daughter, Brooklyn, and how different she has become in the short time Ive been gone.
At 2 a.m., dozens of families stood in a hangar, waiting for their loved ones to arrive. They clasped Welcome Home signs, cameras and balloons. They cradled babies and pushed strollers.
Jennifer Wood arrived with her four daughters, ages 2 to 7, all of them wide-eyed and anxious to see their father.
Weve done this multiple times, said Wood, of Unadilla. Its never exactly easy, but its doable.
As the troops exited the aircraft, their families yelped and sprinted toward them. Lt. Col. Josh Warren dropped to his knees as his children, ages 4 and 2, leapt into his arms.
Its just wonderful, Warren said, adding he is excited to be home for Christmas. I missed everything last year, so its good.
As the aircraft rolled toward the hangar, 11-month-old Emma Mann pointed her tiny finger toward the plane. Her mother, Cassandra Mann, balanced Emma in one hand, and a sign that spelled Welcome Home Daddy in the other. A few minutes later, Staff Sgt. Jason Mann was kissing his daughter.
Its pretty hard (being away), said Mann, of Warner Robins, especially with her being so young.
When Staff Sgt. Jason Laird, of Kathleen, greeted his family, he learned the gender of his unborn baby -- on a T-shirt. His wife, Rebecca Laird, sported a white T-shirt with pink footprints and letters spelling Its a girl.
I couldnt tell no family members or anything because I wanted him to know first, Rebecca Laird said. It was very hard.
It will be the third child for the couple, whose two small children greeted their father with homemade signs. Its a relief to have him home for the holidays, Rebecca Laird said.
It would be hard if he wasnt here, she said through tears. It takes a load off.
While Jason Laird played with his children, Tyler Shell cradled Brooklyn, who has learned to crawl and sit up since he last held her.
The past few months have been difficult for Cera Shell, who has been going to school while taking care of Brooklyn. But celebrating Christmas with her husband is a dream come true, she said.
Its the best thing that could happen, she said. Its like an early Christmas present.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.