Happy homecoming for long-deployed parents

Air Force parents return to toddler at grandmother's Sycamore home after 6-month deployment

SYCAMORE – Liam Burton waited 167 days to give his mom and dad their first kisses.

On Thursday, 18-month-old Liam planted a kiss on his mom, Nikki Burton, and dad, Adam Burton, for the first time when they returned to Sycamore after a nearly six-month deployment with the U.S. Air Force.

“He always kisses the phone, but that was the first one when we actually touched,” Nikki said. “It was unreal.”

Senior Airman Adam Burton, 24, and Senior Airman Nikki Burton, 23, were deployed to southwest Asia together with the 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron late last year when their son, Liam, was a little more than a year old. In the time they were gone, Liam stayed with Adam's mom, Kim Mattei, in Sycamore and later Nikki's mom, Melissa Miller, in Kalamazoo, Mich. He is their first grandchild.

“I feel really sad they couldn't be with him,” Miller said. “He's such a joy to be around.”

Adam and Nikki met while stationed together at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., outside San Francisco, and got married about two years ago before having Liam. When they learned of their impending deployment, the military gave them the option to be deployed one after the other or at once. They chose the latter because it seemed better for Liam and because they knew they would have the support of their families. Facing deployment together also seemed like the best option, they said.

Adam's brother, Jake Burton, traveled to the couple's home in California last October to take Liam before the couple shipped out. He recalled a beautiful California day marked with silence through the moment when it came time to say goodbye at the airport.

“Taking a child from the mother is the hardest thing I've ever done,” Jake Burton said.

In her first nights with Liam, Mattei said she could tell he was stressed and confused by the change in his environment. He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and cry when the family would go to his crib.

Eventually his stress faded. Since last October, Liam's started talking, sprouted more teeth and learned how to take a selfie, among other things. He has mannerisms like his parents' and loves riding in his toy car.

“He came to us as a baby, and he's now a toddler,” Mattei said.

Liam's parents talked to him and the rest of their family through video phone calls about once a week. Most of the time the family followed Liam around with a phone so his parents could watch him play. Seeing him was hard at first, but the harder thing was not being able to be there at all, the couple said.

“It's hard to think of all the little things, his feet scampering around, him yelling,” Adam Burton said. “You don't want to miss that kind of stuff.”

While they felt a pang of regret, they were also comforted to see their son.

"We knew that when we signed the dotted line, we signed our life away to the military," Nikki Burton said. "You sacrifice some things, but it's worth it. We're honored."

The Burtons will return soon to the base in California, and then they will have eight days to spend together in a new home. Cuddling Liam and chasing him around top the list of things they want to do.

After they were gone for nearly a third of his life, everyone was worried Liam wouldn't remember his parents. But on Thursday as they arrived in their fatigues, those worries faded and were replaced by hugs, kisses and laughter.

“You have that fear that he's not going to know them,” Mattei said. “But he remembers his mommy and daddy.”