Bounding down the aircraft steps, troops returning home from Afghanistan can usually expect a hero’s welcome with a sea of banners, cheering crowds and a kiss with that special someone all to look forward to.

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So, when RAF wife Gemma Owen realised she’d be more than 4,000 miles away when husband Darren’s plane touched down at RAF Marham, she was determined not to disappoint.

She’s come up with a canny plan to be in two places at once, arranging for friends to hold a life-size cut-out photo so beaming smile still greets ‘Daz’ on the runway.

“It’s all going to be a complete surprise,” she said. “I know he’ll laugh when he sees it and just think I’m an idiot.”

Gemma, a staff nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, will be sunning herself in the West Indies when Darren returns home from a four-and a-half-month tour in mid-November.

“It sounds really harsh, doesn’t it?” she said. “But there’s a good reason why I won’t be there to meet him. My best friend Cathryn is getting married in Antigua and we arranged the holiday before he was posted.”

Darren, a corporal serving with RAF Marham II (AC) Squadron, is unable to catch a connecting flight in time and will be forced to miss the nuptials.

“I’m usually there to meet him, but I’d already promised to be at the wedding and I’m a bridesmaid,” Gemma, 32, said.

“My parents are coming with me and there will be no-one to meet him when he gets off the plane. I thought the next best thing would be to send a life-sized picture of myself. It won’t be the same, but at least I’ll be there in spirit.”

Gemma and her friends came up with the idea while chatting over a meal and she later asked colleagues at the hospital for their help in creating ‘Gemma two’.

She thought carefully about what she would have worn on a cold November day to meet him, opting for jeans and a brightly-coloured scarf.

“It all started as a joke,” Gemma said. “Now I really want to keep it a secret so it’s a big surprise.

“Usually I would go and meet him and we’d go for lunch, spend time with our two cocker spaniels and relax. It’s awful when he’s away, but my work colleagues have become like a family and they all look out for me. The other RAF wives are brilliant too.

“I wish I could be there, but I’m pleased I’m missing all his washing! Hopefully it will all be done when I get back.”

Gemma, who lives on the base, has instructed friends Ali Flint and Tracy Wheeler keep hold of the cut-out on the day.

“I don’t want to get blown away or sucked into a jet engine,” she laughed.

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