Additional reporting by MICHAELA HALNON and COURTNEY LAMDIN
A shy smile lined Brooke Adams’ face, her eyes fixated on her father whom she hadn’t seen in months.
Master Sgt. Darren Adams gazed back at his 6-year-old daughter as she clutched onto a small stuffed animal almost as tightly as he held her.
Like Adams, Brooke’s fuzzy friend, Brooke Bear, spent the past three months overseas.
Adams was one of 310 airmen to return home last Thursday after a three-month mission to the Middle East called Operation Inherent Resolve, a press release from the Vermont Air National Guard said.
Members of the 158th Fighter Wing provided precision air-to-ground attacks against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, flying over 600 combat missions and deploying over 800 weapons, the news release said.
A cheering crowd greeted the Green Mountain Boys just after a brilliant sunset, mirroring the one that colored the sky during their December send-off.
Called a short-notice deployment, the airmen departed just after Thanksgiving, less than 30 days after they learned of the mission.
Too large to land at the South Burlington base, the 747 commercial airliner taxied onto the nearby Heritage Aviation’s runway. Gov. Phil Scott and top military officials welcomed the airmen before a fleet of coach buses transported them to anxiously awaiting friends and family.
The darkness only added to the moment’s chaos, as the airmen unloaded and tried to find their loved ones, many of whom toted flags and homemade signs.
For Tech Sgt. Michael Daigneault of Georgia, last week was one of multiple homecomings he’s experienced over the years. This time, though, was different.
“I missed her first Christmas, her first birthday and now we’re home and she’s changed so much,” he said of his daughter, Grace, now 12 months old.
Stepping off the plane that night was emotional. Heart pounding, Daigneault said he didn’t know what to expect.
But as his wife, young one, parents and extended family members surrounded him, he expressed his gratitude for the great homecoming, good deployment and the opportunity to decompress over the coming days.
Her husband back on American soil, Jessica Daigneault said she felt like a weight was lifted from her shoulders.
“Are you so happy?” she whispered to Grace, resting on her hip.
“Thank God for family,” she continued. “It takes a village for sure.”
The deployment disrupted the family’s daily routine and forced them to rely on help from loved ones, but Jessica beamed with pride for her husband and his fellow airmen.
“I wouldn’t ask for him to have any other job,” she said.
The airmen worked diligently combating ISIS’ stronghold, Adams said, clocking 12-to-14 hour days.
“No days off, but very rewarding,” he reflected.
For Milton native Master Sgt. Brett Patnaude, this particular mission set December’s deployment apart from the handful of others he’s embarked on. Patnaude stood with his niece in his arms while his brother, Tech Sgt. Ryan Patnaude, reunited with their parents.
Around them, airmen continued to embrace their families and catch up on lost time.
Thankfully though, not all communication faltered during the families’ time apart. Wifi paired with mobile apps prompted almost daily video and texting conversations across continents, despite the eight-hour time difference, Adams said.
Chairman of the Milton Selectboard, Adams also stayed in touch with town officials. He may have missed budget talks, his wedding anniversary, Christmas and Brooke and Allyssa’s birthdays, but he made it home just in time for his, he joked.
Lucky for Adams, a couple presents were patiently waiting for him at home.
“Daddy, you got a few presents in your stocking!” Brooke happily exclaimed.
“Oh wow!” he replied, hoisting her up a little further on his hip as Allyssa approached.
The three of them – four including Brooke Bear – were reunited once again.