Mayor Sheryl Mai is waiting on the tarmac at Whangārei Airport. It's an overcast and blustery evening. She's standing with a couple of other councillors, a man in an RNZAF officers' uniform, plus a familiar face, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Nearby is a man in his 30s and two primary school-aged children, a boy and girl. The kids are fidgety, the man is having a hard time trying to keep them still.

The plane they're waiting for is 20 minutes late. It can be seen on the horizon as it begins its descent over Bream Bay.

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Inside the plane is a female officer who's been stationed at the US airbase on Okinawa for the past 12 months, supporting the P3 Orion that's helping the United States carry out surveillance of the East China Sea.

The airport scene is what departing head of the Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, would like to see when military personnel return from overseas deployment.

Keating reckons New Zealand troops don't get the recognition of sports stars and deserve better. He wants our mayors and civic leaders to welcome them back properly, as heroes.
His comments were made to the Sunday Star-Times after a contingent of Defence Force firefighters returned from combating blazes in California.

Few would deny that risking your life fighting out-of-control forest fires is a brave thing to do. We have huge respect for the men and women who serve as firefighters, from the armed forces or not.

But let's take Keating's idea and run with it a bit. If we're going to have our mayors, and presumably our prime minister (curious she wasn't mentioned), officially welcoming returning military personnel, then it needs to be done consistently. It can't be selective.

New Zealand's elite SAS troops should be welcomed back from Afghanistan or Iraq in the same manner. Doing so would generate some welcome debate as to why these troops are there in the first place and what they're actually doing.

Let's have them talk freely to the media about their experiences alongside US, British and Australian forces in these combat zones.

Perhaps Keating wouldn't want that. During his time as head of the Defence Force, the military tried to deny the killing of civilians by New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan, as detailed in Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager's book Hit & Run.

One suspects the last thing Keating or anyone else in top military or government circles would want is media access to all our returning troops. Some awkward questions might be asked.

And I wonder what Keating thinks of politicians waiting for a plane carrying a coffin of someone killed on duty overseas. This tends not to be popular with the public.

I absolutely think our prime minister and other leaders should be present. If our Government is prepared to send military personnel to dangerous parts of the world to stay onside with the United States or Australia, then they should be fronting up at the airport when somebody comes home dead.

If Keating got his wish, it would soon unravel in controversy and high stakes political debate. He might, in that case, prefer a return to out of sight, out of mind.

■ Vaughan Gunson is a writer and poet interested in social justice and big issues facing the planet.