Zuleika Olea said she would have been just as happy to have her Marine boyfriend back home from the six-month deployment he had just served.
But when he surprised her with an engagement ring, and got down on one knee in front of the squadron's hangar to propose to her, it made for a memorable homecoming that she would never forget.
Her answer was “of course.”
“I love him and I can't wait,” a still-trembling Olea said moments later. “He couldn't have picked a better moment. We knew we were going to get married because we are kind of engaged, but it wasn't anything official.”
Olea's boyfriend, Cpl. Jose Hernandez, was one of about 100 Yuma-based Marines and sailors with Marine Attack Squadron 513, along with a detachment from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13, who returned Monday afternoon from a deployment to the North Pacific Ocean aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Hernandez said although he was pretty confident what Olea's answer would be, it was still a very long walk from where the plane they flew in on landed, over to the hangar where family and friends were anxiously awaiting to have their loved ones home.
“She pretty much knew, she just didn't know when. I didn't want to tell her when,” Hernandez said of the proposal. “I was really nervous. All of my feelings were building up at once, but she said yes, so I'm really happy.”
Monday's homecoming marked the final mission of the VMA-513 Flying Nightmares. After nearly seven decades of serving its country in the skies, the squadron is slated to be decommissioned next month.
VMA-513 has participated in major conflicts such as World War II and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. It was one of the first squadrons to see action in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, spending nearly a year on deployment from October 2002 through the autumn of 2003.
The squadron also holds several aviation milestones, including the first kill of a supersonic drone with a Sidewinder missile in 1964, the first Corps squadron to transition to the Harrier in 1970, the only squadron in the world to simultaneously employ all three variants of the AV-8B in 2001 and the first squadron to employ the Lightning II targeting pod in combat.
For Lance Cpl. Artavia Smith, he was proud to have served on the deployment, saying that its significance was not lost on him and the other Marines, who were aware of the legacy they were leaving behind.
“It was a humbling experience,” said Smith, whose father was waiting to greet him Monday. “There was definitely a lot of pride in being one of the last of the Nightmares, especially being one of the newer guys and hearing about its history.”
Smith added that now that he was back in Yuma, he was looking forward to spending time with his dad and family.
Waiting for Cpl. Jacob Black inside the squadron's hangar was his wife, Brittany, and their daughter, Emma, who held a sign that read “Hand my Daddy back.” Although still overwhelmed with emotion for having her husband return home safely, Brittany said they were now looking forward to things getting back to normal as soon as possible.
“I'm going to take a couple of days off and relax, and get used to the heat again,” Black said.
Black also spoke about how different this deployment was for the squadron compared with previous deployments, and what it meant for him personally.
“Every deployment, every Marine has a good feeling about it, especially on their way home,” Black said. “Knowing this was the last deployment for VMA-513, at least for now, it brought out even more of a special sense of pride.”
For Lt. Col. Samuel Smith, the squadron's commanding officer, while the homecoming was an emotional day for everyone, it was also bittersweet for him.
“This is the best part of a deployment, coming home,” Smith said. “It is a big deal. The flags are out, the ladies are all looking beautiful and the kids are just tearing up seeing their mommies and daddies come home.”
Proud to have led the squadron overseas one last time, Smith said it is scheduled to be de-activated on July 12, bringing to a close a unique history in the Marine Corps.
This latest deployment, Smith said, allowed the squadron to come full circle. He explained that VMA-513 saw combat for the first time in World War II during the battle of Okinawa and that pilots flew their last missions during this deployment, which also happened to be in Japan.
While some Marines in the squadron aren't re-enlisting, Smith said those who are staying will be transferred to one of the other Harrier squadrons on the air station.
James Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.