CLEARWATER — Ben Rainey stared into his baby girl's eyes as he stuck out a finger to tickle her belly.
A lot had changed since the Army pilot last saw Lorelai, who was only 7 days old when her dad shipped off to Afghanistan. On Tuesday, Rainey marveled at the 8-month-old's wispy brown hair and small teeth.
"It feels great to be back in the States," said Rainey, 31, of Orlando. He was one of 120 members of the U.S. Army Reserve's Clearwater-based F/5-159 Aviation Medevac Company who returned home to a hero's welcome Tuesday after a yearlong tour in Afghanistan.
Loved ones cheered, waved flags, snapped photos and shed tears as their chartered plane landed at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
During their tour of duty, the company's pilots, medics and crew members put in 2,200 flight hours over the course of 876 missions, ducking into hostile areas to transport 1,236 patients from the field to medical facilities throughout the region, according to military officials.
But several of the soldiers said Tuesday that they weren't worried.
"You just keep focused on what you're doing. When you go out," Rainey said, "you know you're going to help save someone's life. You don't even think about it."
At the airport, Terri Mooney of Lake Wales was among those who held a "Welcome Home" sign high as her 20-year-old daughter, Spc. Erika Turnbull, appeared.
Mooney, 45, said her daughter — born at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune while her father was stationed there with the Marines — has the military "in her blood."
Nonetheless, a worried Mooney kept in constant contact via the Internet. Asked her first thought when she saw her daughter Tuesday, she replied "overwhelming euphoria."
"I was so excited that she's safe and home and I could touch her. I read too much online about Afghanistan," Mooney said.
Turnbull, one of the youngest in her regiment, said she's looking forward to "the little things" like her own bathroom again, eating with utensils that aren't plastic and her mom's cooking. Calling the deployment "a good learning experience," the military dispatcher plans to return to college to study international affairs.
Meanwhile, Capt. Daniel Waters' 6-year-old daughter, Mariah, informed him that he has trick-or-treating and an apparent trip to Legoland in his future. Mariah and her 8-year-old brother, Tyler, each clutched one of their father's arms and snuggled close. His wife, Cynthia, 38, said she and the children don't mind sharing their hero with the world but are thrilled to have him home. "We're just lucky that he and everyone else made it back safe," Cynthia Waters said. "We're looking forward to things getting back to normal."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or email@example.com.