Of all the things Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mackay won't miss about Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, food is close to the top of his list.
A diet that included "mystery meat" and rice landed 80 men in the hospital with salmonella. The caterer was fired, but he was rehired when all the other food providers proved worse."The food got better as time went along," conceded Mackay, who was among Air National Guard and Air Force troops who returned home Wednesday.
Utah troops were greeted at the Salt Lake International Airport by Gov. Norm Bangerter and two National Guard generals, who stood on the tarmac as the four-engine aerial refueling tanker carrying the troops home streaked across the airstrip, making a low, wheels-up run past the waiting crowd before landing and rolling to a stop with an American flag waving out of the cargo door.
The first crew member to emerge through the door of the plane drew enthusiastic applause when he ripped open his shirt to display an Operation Desert Storm T-shirt with an American flag printed across the front.
The West Jordan High School band played in the hangar behind the crowd as airmen rolled out a red carpet at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the aircraft. Bangerter and Maj. Gen. John L. Matthews were the first in line to greet the 17 airmen and one woman as they planted their feet on home soil for the first time since the day after Christmas.
"No matter how many times they do it, it always seems like the homecomings are a little more tender than the goings away," Bangerter told several hundred people in attendance after the troops had spent a few minutes being absorbed by the crowd. "It's fun to see each of you reunited with your families."
The returning group included 15 pilots, air crew and support personnel from the Air Guard's 151st Air Refueling Group and three members of the 2701st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Detachment from Hill Air Force Base.
Mackay supervised the command post at Jiddah and called the strategic wing there the largest ever assembled.
And while Jiddah was generally considered out of range for Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles, Mackay said the threat of terrorist attacks was a big concern. A sniper riddled a bus with machine gun fire, injuring the three people aboard. On Dec.28, two days after the Utah group left the state, Saddam tested two Scud missiles Mackay said could have reached Jiddah. The test followed Saddam's threats to level Jiddah after learning a bomber task force was operating from there, Mackay said.
Being with his family was the best part of being home, Mackay said. But living in Saudi Arabia also helped him appreciate other American amenities such as uncensored TV, clean air, clean tap water, Utah Jazz games and a free press.
Capt. Matt Flood was a bit surprised by the number of children that accompanied his wife, Coleen, to greet him. As another officer explained, his wife was unable to find a substitute to take her fifth-grade class at Ogden's Edison Elementary when she found out her husband was headed home on the Air Guard plane. So she took the class with her.
From a base near the Red Sea, members of the 151st flew or provided ground support for a pool of as many as 90 aerial refueling tankers, which in turn provided in-flight refueling for all types of bombers, fighters and attack aircraft that flew sorties into Iraq.