Troops arrive back at Suffolk base

AFTER spending two months battling difficult conditions in Middle Eastern landscapes, air force personnel stationed at a Suffolk base returned home yesterday for an emotional reunion with their loved ones.

AFTER spending two months battling difficult conditions in Middle Eastern landscapes, air force personnel stationed at a Suffolk base returned home yesterday for an emotional reunion with their loved ones.

Around 50 members of the 16 Squadron RAF Regiment travelled back to RAF Honington from the Gulf to a warm reception from relatives - but the majority will spend just seven short weeks on home soil before being redeployed to the Falklands.

Among those waiting for loved ones was Sarah Patterson, from Bury St Edmunds, whose husband Alan is a flight sergeant with the RAF.

Mrs Patterson, whose two daughters Lucy, 10, and Chloe, 12, were not at Honington to greet their father, said the couple's two-month separation had been difficult.

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“It has been dreadful. I have been trying to cope with work, the children and studying at college, which has been a juggling act,” said Mrs Patterson. “I am so glad they have come home, as we were told they could be there for around six months. “Its wonderful to see Alan again, safe and well.”

Flight Sgt Patterson, who has also served in Northern Ireland, Hong Kong and the Falklands, said conditions in both Iraq and the Kuwaiti desert had been difficult.

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“The experience really focussed some of the younger lads, but I have been away quite a lot,” he said.

“We were constantly on duty, and there was no shift work. Even at night there was lots of ground activity, and we didn't know if the fire was friendly or otherwise.

“Some days were a lot harder than others - it was very difficult being in Iraq, for example, as we were always surrounded by starving children.

“We were in southern Iraq, which was one of the first places to be liberated, but aid had not reached the people while we were there.

“The children were mainly after water, and were so desperate they would try and steal things from our kit off the back of our trucks. Fortunately we carried enough on the trucks so we could hand it out, but it was difficult.”

And Sgt Steve Harrison, from Elmswell, near Bury, was finally reunited with his wife Michelle and daughters Danielle, 11, and seven-year-old Charlotte.

“It is fantastic to see my family again after two months,” he said. “It has been a challenging time and the conditions were difficult but we are trained to operate the Rapier system and that is what we did.

“We weren't expecting to go into Iraq but we did it and we were successful and everyone got back safely. That's the main thing.”

Zoë Edwards, 26, could hardly contain her excitement as she awaited the return of her fiancé 27-year-old Ryan Thompson, a senior airman based at Honington.

The couple, from Bury St Edmunds, said their separation had been hard - but were delighted to see each other once more.

“It has been really, really difficult, but I managed to speak to Ryan quite a lot,” said Miss Edwards. “And I watched the news every day, as I felt it brought me closer to him. It is brilliant to have him back, and a relief to see him come home safely.”

Sally and Alan Martin, from Ipswich, were among those anxiously waiting for the return of their son Wayne.

It is the first time the 22-year-old has been deployed since joining the RAF, and his worried mother said she had been glued to the television news since the conflict began.

“It is lovely to see him again - fantastic,” said Mrs Martin. “It is nice to see him safe and well.”

And Wayne was already planning his own welcome home celebration.

“It is a big relief to see mum and dad again,” he said. “And I'm going to have a few drinks later to celebrate, I expect.”

The troops initially protected the Ali Al Salem air base, in Kuwait, before moving into southern Iraq to provide defence against Seersucker missiles, utilised by Saddam Hussein's troops around three weeks into the conflict.

Members from the Joint Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Regiment, who were among the 750 staff deployed from Honington, are still in the Gulf.

And Group Captain Graham Stacey, station commander at Honington, said the task for personnel from the base has not yet ended, as those who have arrived back home are soon to be replaced in the Middle East by airmen from 26 Squadron.

“This will be an ongoing task which may last around two years,” he said. “And for a lot of these people, this latest conflict is about the fifth or sixth time they have been away over the last few years.

“That has a huge impact, not just on the individuals but the families as well.

“But we were prepared to be involved in a much higher level of combat than we were - we had warned the families to expect the personnel back later rather than sooner. The families are now all fairly buoyant, as many didn't expect to have their husbands and dads back before the summer holidays, let alone in early May.”

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