Christmas will have a special meaning this year for the family of Michigan Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jason Majewski, who eagerly awaited his return from a 6-month deployment to the Ahmed Al Javer Air Base in Kuwait.
"It was so scary to have him over there," said his wife, Mary Ann Majewski of Clinton Township, with tears in her eyes. "I'm glad he's home now. I'm very proud of him and I'm glad they're honoring them. If it wasn't for their service, we wouldn't be here."
Sgt. Majewski, who has served for 21 years, was one of 450 Michigan Air National Guard men and women of the 127th Wing honored Sunday at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township in a welcome home ceremony for those who deployed in 2015 to serve overseas.
Many of the airmen have been home since late October, but that didn't stop the flow of tears and hugs from family members who said the ceremony made their homecoming official.
"It feels nice," Majewski said. "I'm glad to be home."
The airmen were deployed six months ago as part of Operation Inherent Resolve fighting ISIS, and other missions, across southwest Asia, said Brig. Gen. John D. (Doug) Slocum, commander of the 127th Wing at Selfridge. Slocum said the ceremony was significant because every single airman deployed returned home to their families.
"We sent 450 people out, we got 450 back," Slocum said to loud cheers and clapping. "As a commander, that's the only number that truly matters. It's so good to have everyone back, especially in time for Christmas."
Slocum said the airmen accomplished several missions in sweltering weather during one of the hottest summers ever recorded, where the heat index reached 167 degrees. Most of the airmen were deployed for 6 months, which was the longest mass deployment of Selfridge Airmen since the Korean War, Slocum said.
"We're proud of you and what you've done," Slocum said. "However you want to calculate it, you won."
Maj. Gen. Gregory J. Vadnais, Adjutant General and the Director of Military and Veterans Affairs for Michigan, said he saw the airmen at work firsthand on a night mission in August. The airmen were from units that fly and operate the A-10 Thunderbolt II, Slocum said. He said the A-10 pilots and support crews logged more than 11,000 combined hours of combat flight time.
Vadnais said during the past 14 years of conflict, the Michigan National Guard has deployed 23,000 soldiers and airmen. Of that number, 21 have died. Vadnais said at this very moment, airmen are leading precision fires from Jordan into Syria.
"We got to see it happening on the ground," Vadnais said. "Building bombs, loading bombs, maintaining airplanes. ...I was in awe of what you did. They were turning 10 missions a day and to do that consistently for 6 months, just outstanding. ... I can't tell you how critically important it is that we have what you're doing today to defend this great nation."
Several officials attended the ceremony, including Gov. Rick Snyder, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, who all made brief remarks.
Snyder thanked the men and women for their service, which he said comes at a time when the country must defend itself.
At the beginning of the ceremony, a moment of silence was held to remember the victims of a mass shooting last week that left 14 dead and at least 17 injured after a couple opened fire at a center for disabled adults in San Bernardino, Calif.
"All you have to do today is turn on your TV to see what a scary place the world can be," Snyder said. "There are some really bad people out there. ISIS, those terrorists are threatening all of us and quite often we wonder what we can do about it. Thanks to the great people here in 127, we took the fight to them and we need to do that. But that requires courage, bravery and the ability to operate in one of the most difficult conditions in the world. ... To do it well, and to do it in a way where you can be safe... that's extraordinary."
Miller echoed Snyder's comments and said she has "never been more proud." Ten of the airmen have already re-enlisted and pledged their oaths before Snyder at the ceremony.
"You put significant damage on the enemies," Miller said addressing the crowd. "These are the enemies of freedom. You performed because you knew the essence of what you were doing was about protecting our liberty, democracy and our freedom."
Peters thanked and applauded the airmen for their sacrifice and love for their country.
"We know that there are very evil forces and that we're going to need to stand up to those forces," Peters said. "You're one of those folks that do that. We know that you're fighting to keep the freedoms we so deeply care about. ...I know that in the end, the forces of good always defeat the forces of evil."