National Guard homecoming

133rd Military Police Company returns from Afghanistan

Pee Dee welcomes Guard unit that lost 3 in suicide attack

jwilkinson@thestate.comSeptember 16, 2012 

Audio slideshow produced by Gerry Melendez

Spc. Robert Ervin, 22, held his baby boy in his arms with unrestrained delight.

Robert Jr., was born nine months ago, just after Evans shipped out to Afghanistan with his S.C. National Guard unit, the 133rd Military Police Company. The unit suffered three dead and five severely wounded in a suicide bomb attack in June.

Ervin, a communications specialist from Lamar, first saw his new baby during a two-week leave earlier this year, along with his wife, Tiffany, 21, and 2-year-old daughter, Laylah. But Sunday’s reunion at Veterans Park in Florence was every bit as poignant, given the hell Evans and the rest of his unit has endured.

“It’s like holding a newborn again,” Ervin said, cradling Junior. “I just want to go home and be with my two kids.”

The 170-member company, nicknamed the Palmetto Regulators, deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom last September. Its job was to train Afghan police in one of the world’s most dangerous places — Khost Province on the border with Pakistan, an area rife with infiltration routes used by insurgent fighters.

Although Sunday’s ceremony was intended as a welcome home celebration and not a memorial service — joy abounded with hundreds of people cheering, waving flags and holding up welcome signs — there was an undercurrent of sadness over the lives lost and the sacrifices made in the war zone.

“Our five are still healing,” company commander Capt. David Bryant, fighting back tears, told the crowd. “And our three, who gave everything they had … May we live the rest of our lives honoring them in everything we do.”

1st Lt. Ryan Davis Rawl, 30, and Sgt. J.D. Meador, 36, both of Lexington, and Sgt.1st Class Matthew Bradford Thomas, 30, of Easley, were killed when a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-filled vest attacked a checkpoint in a crowded market in Khost City. All three of the men killed were married with small children.

Five other S.C. Guard members sustained serious injuries: broken bones and shrapnel wounds, some resulting in amputations, according to the military, who did not release their names. In addition, two Afghan police officers and at least 14 civilians were killed.

It was the bloodiest day of the Afghan war for the S.C. Guard, which has deployed more than 12,000 troops there since the war began in 2001.

“Our ranks aren’t as full today as on the day we left,” Col. Van McCarty, commander of the 59th Troop Command, told the returning soldiers. “We know about the difficult days that will be ahead of you. You are not alone; we’re in it together.”

1st Lt. Johnny Thorne of Columbia was leading a detached platoon about 25 kilometers away from Khost City when his best friend, Rawl, was killed.

“I don’t know that it’s completely sunk in yet,” Thorne said. “I tried real hard to just focus on the soldiers that we had left over there. Try to get them home safe. I thought we’d have to deal with the loss we suffered when we got home.”

Although a memorial service was held at the unit’s base in Afghanistan, Thorne said he plans to visit all three of the grave sites here with family members and other fellow soldiers.

“Now that we’re here, and we have more people to support us, I think it might be easier when we try to face it,” he said.

Thorne was welcomed home by a large contingent of friends and family members — father and mother Betsy and Johnny; his wife, Sina, and sons Will, 5, and Robert, 3.

Sina wept as her husband emerged from the throng of soldiers and well-wishers.

“It’s like Christmas in September,” she said. “And Santa is wearing a green suit.”

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