After dodging mortar rounds and piloting Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq for the past year, Capt. Matt Jackson arrived in Los Alamitos on Monday morning to an onslaught of tears, hugs and kisses—none more fierce than those of his 4-year-old son, Jared.
Jared locked his arms around his father’s neck and held on even as Jackson hugged one person after another.
Jackson put his son down just long enough to wrap both arms around Joe and Laura Landaker, the mother and father of a downed pilot for whom Jackson named his son.
It was a bittersweet embrace.
Joe Landaker let tears and laughter flow as he held the man who had become like a son since his own son was killed in Iraq five years ago. Jared Landaker had played baseball with Jackson at the University of Laverne, and the two grew close as they joined the military and became pilots. Landaker, based out of Camp Pendleton, was one of seven soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down over Iraq in February 2006.
“We didn’t get to do this with our son," Joe Landaker said Monday. "We had to fly to Dover to see him. This young man has become like a son to us, and being able to see him come home today doesn’t replace Jared, but it does help."
Landaker, who started a nonprofit to support soldiers in his son's honor, added, “It was such an honor to us that Matt called the day his son was born and asked if he could name him Jared. Seeing him come home means so much to us.”
Jackson had a lot on his mind throughout his yearlong deployment with the Los Alamitos-based California National Guard's 1-140th Aviation Battalion. He thought about his son, his wife, Amy, his 1-year-old daughter, and the death of his friend Jared.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind every time I flew,” Jackson said.
To make it through the year, Jackson pushed back his fears and focused on coming home to his family. A career soldier, Jackson plans to take a month off and spend time with his family in Orange, starting with a party today at his favorite restaurant, Schooner or Later in Long Beach, and an Angels game tomorrow.
All told, about 300 soldiers with the California National Guard aviation battalion returned home to Los Alamitos on Monday, each with a unique list of things they've been pining to do for the last year, including a trip to see Captain America, eating an In-N-Out burger and taking a nap without the roar of jets and threat of mortar attacks.
The battalion had been stationed at Iraq's Joint Base Balad since Aug. 7, playing a critical role in the nation’s plans to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Despite routine attacks against the base, the battalion suffered no casualties.
On Monday, more than 1,000 friends and family members cheered and waved banners as the soldiers stepped off the plane in Los Alamitos.
The troops walked in single file, but any semblance of order was quickly broken as a little boy and girl raced into their father’s arms. That hug opened the floodgates, and wives, girlfriends, children and parents ran across the airfield for hugs and kisses a year in the making.
Marilyn Talbot of Dana Point was the first family member lined up at the airfield Monday, having arrived at 6:30 a.m. to greet her daughter. Talbot clutched a bouquet of yellow roses and waited three hours to see her daughter step off the plane.
“I was worried about traffic, and I didn’t want to take the chance that I’d be late,” Talbot said.
“Having daughters, I thought I wouldn’t have to go through this,” Talbot said. “But my daughter is a strong, capable woman, and I prayed a lot and had faith that she would return.”
Talbot not only didn’t lose a daughter to the war, she gained a son when her daughter married a fellow Black Hawk pilot stationed in Korea during a two-week break.
Of all the welcome-home kisses, 1st Lt. Aaron Montes received perhaps the slobberiest greeting—from his cocker spaniel, Pepper. Playing with the dog, Montes got a taste of home life, but he said the return to normalcy won’t be easy.
“Being back here is surreal,” he said. “I am glad to be back, but it’s going to take a couple of weeks to get used to it. Every siren and loud noise will be tough. We got attacked by mortars all day and all night.”
Throughout the yearlong deployment, Montes said he probably slept no more than five hours at a time.
“At first you're scared, but after a while you think to yourself, ‘If I die, then I die. There is nothing I can do about it,’ ” he said. “But I didn’t sleep much because of the noise and because I was worried about our mission all the time. I am looking forward to some quiet, but I’m going to have to get used to it.”
The homecoming was also surreal for Specialist Michael Mirano, who was met by his wife, Christina, his 1-year-old son, Adam, and his 3-year-old daughter, Adriana.
“To see how much they have grown is ridiculous. When I left, [Adam] was 8-and-a-half months old, and now he is walking and talking,” said Mirano. “It’s like I am in shock, and I am just trying to be strong.”
For Mirano, the military is family tradition. He is a fourth-generation soldier and not the only relative to serve in Iraq.
“We all have to serve, and I am very proud of him,” said his grandfather Gabriel Salas, a veteran of the Korean War.
Along with their grandson, Gabriel and Patricia Salas have a son currently deployed in Iraq and another scheduled to deploy next month.
“We are a very strong military family,” said Patricia Salas. “My youngest son said he’d rather die for his country than end up some 80-year-old with tubes up his nose. Our country needs people like that. And it’s up to us to be strong for them.”