She missed his scent.

For the past six months, it's been lodged in Lauren Shegstad's mind. A whiff of generator exhaust and hydraulic fluid may not be the most pleasant aroma in the world, but it was the smell she associated most with her husband, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Shegstad of the Minnesota Air National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing, where he maintains aerospace ground equipment.

Inside the family's home in Circle Pines, that scent has been absent since October, when Nicholas departed for a six-month deployment in the Middle East.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lauren and the couple's three children — Landen, 6, Kinsley, 3, and Cedar, 1 — stood alongside the tarmac at Minneapolis-St. Paul Joint Air Reserve Station adjacent to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. They clutched balloons and "Welcome Home" signs and stared at the sky as two hulking C-130 turboprop aircraft banked to the left.

"Daddy's on one of those!" Lauren's mother, Kim Cloutier, told her grandchildren. Then she turned to Lauren, who had their youngest on her shoulders: "Don't cry yet," Cloutier said. "He's not even here."

As Lauren waited for the planes to land — more than 100 airmen and four C-130 Hercules aircraft are returning this week from deployment — she thought back on the past six months. It was her husband's second deployment since they'd been married, and his sixth overall. Their older children are on the autism spectrum, and Landen has to be fed through a gastrostomy tube, so the burdens of parenting on her own have worn on Lauren: cooking and dishes, celebrating Christmas and Landen's birthday without dad, and a stint in December when all three kids had the flu. The past week was even more difficult, with his homecoming so very close.

"You don't realize how much you miss of a person, things as simple as the way they smell," Lauren said. "Just having somebody who has your back all the time."

For families of these airmen, this deployment has been particularly trying because of recent tensions in the Middle East. In January, a U.S. drone struck and killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and Iranian forces responded with a missile attack on two bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops. For a few anxiety-filled weeks, many family members of U.S. troops deployed in the Middle East remained on edge. Many nights, Lauren fell to her knees in the bathroom, crying, praying.

But Wednesday, her husband would be home. A beef roast was in the slow cooker back in Circle Pines. And the days ahead will be filled with activities — the couple plans to take the kids to the zoo and the aquarium next week, and to re-create Thanksgiving dinner next weekend.

Out on the tarmac, the C-130's propellers could be heard whirring from a football field away.

"Oh, God, I love that sound," Lauren said. "Thank you, God, thank you."

"God said, 'You're welcome,' " Landen replied.

"My heart is just pounding," Lauren said. "I feel like I'm getting ready for our first date again. I spent more time getting ready today than I did for our courthouse wedding."

Airmen started to deplane. Lauren walked toward one of the C-130s, clutching her two oldest kids' hands.

No sign of her husband.

She moved toward the other plane. From a distance, she saw his bald head reflecting the sunlight. She let go of her kids' hands and sprinted to him.

Nicholas dropped his backpack and hugged his wife. Then he picked up his children, one by one. He was looking forward to Lauren's enchiladas and Tater Tot hot dish, to wrestling with the kids, to relearning his role in the house. He had never been away from his children this long.

"Just getting to see how much these kids have changed since I've been gone — saying new words, how big they've gotten," Nicholas said. "You can't see how big they are through a cellphone screen."

"Let me back in here," Lauren said, pushing into the crowd.

She grabbed her husband again and moved in for a long kiss. After about 10 seconds, Landen stuck his head between his parents, and the three just held one another in a long embrace.

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647