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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Brian Wallace bends down to greet his children, Sean, center, Hailey, left, and Devina, not pictured, as 300 members of Air Force fighter wings return to Hill.

Jonathan Schwartz missed one of his three daughters' birthdays and another's first day of kindergarten.

Patrick McManaman's 18-month-old boy learned to walk and talk since last August, when McManaman, Schwartz and about 300 members of Hill Air Force Base's 388th and 419th fighter wings deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq.

On Tuesday they came home.

As part of the 4th Fighter Squadron, F-16 pilots from the Hill group known as the "Fightin' Fuujins" flew about 1,800 combat missions over the course of 8,000 hours in the air, the most of any F-16 unit during a rotational deployment to Balad, Hill officials said. Their deployment came during the height of the troop surge in Iraq.

The commander of the 388th, Col. Scott Dennis, told a crowd of waiting families and friends that the troop deaths in Iraq have been trending downward.

"It's due a lot to the folks coming home today," Dennis said.

As of this week there have been 3,911 Iraq war military fatalities since 2003, according to www.icasualties.org, which relies on data from the Department of Defense. The Web site's breakdown of deaths by branch of service shows nearly 2,800 casualties coming from the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve. The Air Force is reporting 42 Iraq war deaths with the Air National Guard listing two war fatalities since 2003.

The total coming home this week was about 300, which almost matches the number who left Dec. 29, 2007, for at least a 120-day deployment to the region as part of what Hill called the "Air and Space Expeditionary Force" rotation. Those who left two weeks ago are members of Hill's active duty 388th and reserve 419th fighter wings, whose mission will be to help out with "close air" support missions to protect ground forces.

Last year, the deadliest on record in Iraq for troops with Utah ties, Hill lost an airman in June, and in January three airmen who were members of the base's 775th Civil Engineer Squadron's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Flight were killed in an explosion in Iraq.

No one from the Hill group returning Tuesday was injured or killed in Iraq.

Ashley LeProhon and her husband, Paul, have been married two years, almost as long as he's been in the Air Force. This was his first deployment.

"It was hard for me, because I had no family here," Ashley said about being away from her husband. Phone calls and e-mails had to suffice for the duration."He's a big part of my life."

The more dangerous jobs in Iraq these days would include patrolling the streets of Baghdad. Improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, are still one of the leading killers in Iraq. At the air base in Balad, there was relative safety, but it was still part of a combat theater.

"It's the constant worry," LeProhon said about the hardest part of having her husband in Iraq. "Even though you know he's pretty safe."

A mother's right to worry was exercised by Jody Randall, mom to 25-year-old Hill airman Nicholas Wilberger.

"I never thought he'd be doing something like this," Randall said about her youngest son. "I worried about him all the time."

Wilberger has a daughter who also learned to walk and talk while he was gone.

McManaman's wife, Angela, escorted their two sons out of a jet hangar and into the cold as a plane carrying the airmen pulled up. In the Air Force for 10 years, it was his first deployment to Iraq.

"It's hard to adjust to the man in your life being gone, but we did OK," Angela said. For the record, "Daddy" was among the first words spoken by their youngest son while Dad was away.

Snow began to fall as the minutes passed and Schwartz couldn't see her husband getting off the plane.

"I forgot what he looks like," she laughed.

Schwartz wasn't sure if her husband would recognize her scream as he got off the plane, but he did, then he smiled and waved from the top of the steps at the plane's door as Schwartz waved a sign that read, "Welcome Home Daddy."As Dad wrapped his arms around his three daughters, Mom stood by and said, "Oh, that just brings tears to my eyes."

Master Sgt. Jonathan Schwartz turns 38 today. He'll also celebrate a late Christmas with his wife and girls. Standing on the tarmac with his family at his side, he said, "It's great to be home.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com