With additional reporting by Michaela Halnon and Kaylee Sullivan.
Last Thursday, Brett and Ryan Patnaude’s father greeted his sons with the Green Mountain Boys’ battle flag draped across his shoulders like a cape.
“We’re master parents,” he said, a riff on his eldest son’s military rank.
Brett, a master sergeant, and Ryan, a technical sergeant, were two of 310 airmen to return home February 22 after a three-month mission to the Middle East called Operation Inherent Resolve, a press release from the Vermont Air National Guard said.
Members of the 158th Fighter Wing provided precision air-to-ground attacks against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, flying 600-plus combat missions over 4,000 hours and deploying more than 800 weapons, a news release said.
A cheering crowd greeted the airmen just after a brilliant sunset, mirroring the one that colored the sky for their December send-off.
Called a short-notice deployment, the airmen departed just after Thanksgiving, less than 30 days after they learned of the mission.
Too large to land at the South Burlington base, the 747 commercial airliner taxied into the nearby Heritage Aviation runway. Gov. Phil Scott and top military officials welcomed the airmen before a fleet of coach buses transported them to anxiously awaiting friends and family.
The darkness only added to the moment’s chaos, as the airmen unloaded and tried to find their loved ones, many of whom toted flags and homemade signs.
In the hangar, Ryan Patnaude was reunited with his two daughters and wife, Elyse. He’s served for 10 years and his older brother for 16. Brett Patnaude, who’s been on “a handful” of deployments, said this one was different.
“Just the mission over there,” he said. “Very impactful.”
He worked 12-hour shifts, getting one day off a week to rest or do laundry. In his free time, he studied and exercised.
“We’re hitting the books or hitting the gym,” he said. “Smarter or stronger.”
Brett Patnaude said he most missed being home for the holidays but said the Guard’s camaraderie eased any homesickness.
“Luckily our shop is unique in the sense that we have our own family who we’re deployed with,” he said. “It didn’t make the sacrifice feel so sacrificial.”
Col. Patrick Guinee, the fighter wing’s commander, recognized this in a VTANG press release.
“It’s hard to describe the pride we have in not only the members themselves deploying but the families back here,” he said. “To put it in some terms, they flew over a year’s worth of hours in just over two months.”
Operation Inherent Resolve was carried out with support from coalition forces, a VTANG press release said, and aimed to block ISIS safe havens and let ground forces conduct counterattacks.
Col. David Lyons, the 407th Air Expeditionary Group commander, called the Vermont airmen “American heroes.”
“The Green Mountain Boys are an absolute class act and did a phenomenal job generating, executing and sustaining combat airpower,” he said in the press release.