Reach 334 was the radio call sign for a stubby, gray-nosed C-130 cargo plane from the 913th Airlift wing out of Willow Grove. In their muscular but slow propeller-driven aircraft, the reservists had been on the journey for four days across eight time zones, with overnight stops in Newfoundland, Scotland and Crete. They knew Thanksgiving dinner would be served to them today at their destination, identified on the manifest only as Site 3, an air base in the Persian Gulf region.
Most will be gone from home for 90 days, a fraction of the year-long duration for many Army deployments. "We don't have it bad," said Master Sgt. John Skillman, 40, of Southampton, a quality assurance inspector for aircraft who is on his second deployment since 9/11.
But 90 days means that Skillman will miss his mother's 70th birthday on Christmas; that Maj. Tim Glynn, 35, of Macungie, Lehigh County, could miss the birth of his second child; that Maj. Keith Frister, 39, of Doylestown, will have to let his wife handle not only her own demanding job at a financial-services company but also manage the house and tend to three children, ages 9, 6 and 2.
It will mean that wives have to shovel the driveway, or get the neighbor's child to do it, when the snows come. It will mean that children's Christmas plays will be missed and that somebody else will have to put up the tree.
Still, Frister says, "we're lucky." As a C-130 pilot, he will face personal danger mostly when he flies into Balad or other Iraq air bases.
"We take our soldiers and Marines in," he said, "but we get to leave and they stay in country."
At dawn Sunday, as families gathered at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station to say goodbye to departing air crews and maintenance personnel, the mood was a mixture of melancholy and resignation.
"We'll manage. What else are we going to do?" said Glynn's wife, Pam, 33, with 3-year-old, Maddie, in tow.
Asked whether she was feeling overly stressed, she replied: "Yes, but it's not going to do me any good."
Probably, she said, she and Maddie will spend Christmas with their extended family in Chicago. She said she was not as concerned about the progress of her pregnancy, now at six months, as she was about Tim's safety.
On the plane for hour after hour, sitting on canvas pull-down rigging, the airmen had nothing to do but drowse, read and think.
These were not your typical young Americans at war. Their average age was probably over 40, as numerous gray and balding heads testified. Many have been in the Reserve for years, supplementing family income while serving the nation. At least two of the pilots in the group were supporting families on part-time Reserve pay after having been laid off by commercial airlines.
Most on the trip, including 18 airmen from Willow Grove among others from New York and Colorado, had been deployed before, if not during, the holidays. Air Force personnel may not have to stay as long in country as members of other services often do, but they typically get called up more than once.
Few were as young and as outwardly excited as Senior Airman David Jimenez, 22, of New York City, a member of the Willow Grove unit.
"The U.S. Air Force, that's my wife," he said during a stop at Prestwick, Scotland. He even had a ring on the third finger of his right hand that read U.S. Air Force.
A college student studying engineering, Jimenez positively beamed. "This is the best time of my life. I love to travel. Whatever they ask of me, I'll do it."
Like other mothers and many wives, his mother prepared him an early Thanksgiving dinner. "Turkey, rice and beans, lasagna, schnitzel - I love schnitzel because I was in Germany - pumpkin pie, apple pie, ice cream. Potato salad. Everything you can think of."
Two of his brothers are Marines and another, his twin, is also in the Air Force Reserve.
"My family's used to this," he said.
Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.