Gallery: Emotional return for Iraq troops

FAMILIES gathered last night for an emotional reunion with the last of the British combat forces to arrive back from Iraq.

Laurence Cawley

FAMILIES gathered last night for an emotional reunion with the last of the British combat forces to arrive back from Iraq.

The gunners of 15 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, which is based at RAF Honington, near Bury St Edmunds, had been part of the RAF's force protection wing at Basra airport.

Yesterday, having flown into RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, 37 gunners made the final leg of their journey home to Suffolk.

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As they stepped off their white coach onto the tarmac at the Suffolk airbase they were applauded by family members, friends, defence minister Quentin Davies and fellow military personnel from 1st Battalion the Royal Tank Regiment, who are also based at RAF Honington and who arrived back just a few days ago.

For 26-year-old Corporal Chris Smyth, arriving home had added poignancy because it was the first time he had seen his son Ethan in the flesh since he was just seven weeks old.

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“It is tough,” said Cpl Smyth. “But we've got a job to do. Seeing Ethan is fantastic - I have been sent pictures pretty much every day.”

His wife, Sarah, 28, said: “Having him back home is really fantastic and exciting and a relief.”

That excitement was shared by Megan and Lauren Cooke, aged five and nine respectively, who made small banners to welcome home their father Sgt Rich Cooke.

Sgt Cooke said: “It is brilliant to see the girls - it has been a long way home. Being out in Iraq was the end of a task for the British. The villagers were really sad to see us go and they gave us presents to say thanks for everything we have done. We can't believe we were the last few back.”

Megan Cooke told how she had delayed having her fifth birthday party so that her father could join them.

Describing life while her husband was on tour, Sue Cooke said despite this being Sgt Cooke's third tour in Iraq it “doesn't get any easier for the family”.

Squadron Leader Chris Berryman, 40, said: “This has been hard work in a hard environment with very real threats. I am pleased to say that every one of my team has lived up to the challenge, they have responded to this most difficult of jobs as I would expect of any member of the RAF Regiment: with vigour, enthusiasm and a determination to see the task to the very end with total professionalism.”

The US military has now taken over the running of Basra airbase, where 12 members of 15 Squadron RAF Regiment remain in order to ensure the safe withdrawal of UK kit and equipment from Iraq.

RAF Honington and Iraq:

The RAF Regiment's association with Iraq dates back to 1922, when 3 RAF Amoured Car Company was formed at Basra.

The RAF Regiment has lost four of its gunners in Iraq since the invasion of the country in 2003. Three of those gunners died during a single rocket attack in July 2007.

Among the honours bestowed upon RAF Regiment gunners during its recent work in Iraq was the Military Cross awarded to Corporal Dave Hayden for acts of selfless bravery during battle.

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