Hugs all around at SC guard homecoming

rburris@thestate.comMay 31, 2013 

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    >>> 16,000

    Since Sept. 11, 2001, the S.C. National Guard has deployed more than 16,000 soldiers to support combat operations overseas.

    >>> 800

    The number of S.C. Army Guard soldiers currently deployed overseas. More than a dozen S.C. Air Guard members are deployed.

    >>> 11

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    S.C. National Guard soldiers have died while deployed to Afghanistan. Five died while deployed to Iraq.

— A large crowd welcomed home the South Carolina National Guard’s 178th Engineer Battalion Friday, offering the returning soldiers an energetic mix of tears, cheers, food and sweet tea.

The 161 troops of the Rock Hill-based battalion all made a safe return home after a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan where, among other duties, they helped prepare for the U.S. military exit from the country.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the country has sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan to fight the war on terror. Many service members, including S.C. National Guard soldiers, have seen multiple deployments.

The number of U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan swelled to 100,000 at its peak in 2011 and dropped to 60,000 last year. Today, many of the remaining troops are being brought home and most troops should be out of the country by the end of next year.

“I’m thankful, I’m grateful,” said Donna Brown Myles of Charlotte, who shed tears Friday during a long embrace of her returning 27-year-old son, Spec. Michael Brown.

“My prayer was that he’d come back a better man,” Myles said. “He’s always been a man of character and leadership, and he’s never caused me any pain except labor pains.”

Brown, a reservist, was on his first tour of military duty overseas.

“She’s a strong lady,” the soldier said of his mother. “I’m happy to be home.”

That same festive scene played out all around the crowded Eagle Aviation hangar, as kids darted about grabbing for their fathers, and wives, sisters, and mothers hugged and squeezed their returning soldier.

The 178th battalion deployed to Afghanistan last August, and upon its arrival, served as the command and control for several active duty and National Guard companies from across the United States – about 1,000 troops, military officials said.

The unit was responsible for engineering missions across parts of eastern Afghanistan, including in the Ghazni, Gardiz and Sharan areas, according to Lt. Col. Corol Dobson, 178th Engineering Battalion commander.

“Our headquarters went over there and we were the higher headquarters for the whole Task Force,” Dobson said. “Pretty hot area; very dangerous. Luckily we didn’t lose anybody, thank goodness.”

The battalion did three kinds of tasks in Afghanistan, including construction and deconstruction. They also cleared routes, the goal of which was to find bombs planted along the roads. And they trained the Afghan Army on how to be better engineers, said Dobson, who finished his second deployment to the country.

About 70 percent of the battalion had previous deployments, Dobson said, and 30 percent were on their first combat mission.

“This (welcome home) celebration was the biggest one I’ve ever seen,” Dobson said. “And I’m not just saying that because it’s our battalion. I’ve been to four or five of these things, and this is a big one. They were spilling out onto the tarmac.”

Greeted by his wife and son, and his sister and brother-in-law and their kids, Dobson said his battalion members will now take off some time before getting back to training. “Yes, (I’m glad to be home),” Dobson said. “Very much so.”

SFC Michael Thompson of Rock Hill, greeted by his wife, Luz, their three children, aged 11, 8, and 5, and other relatives and friends, was just as happy to be home.

“As a soldier your mind is wherever you’re at, so you don’t get too anxious about it until your boots are on the ground,” Thompson said.

The mission?

“It was good,” the 18-year military veteran said. “Anytime I’m away from home it’s difficult, but I had great leadership, great guys around me, and so it made the mission a little easier,” Thompson said. “I had the love and support of my family back home, so it made it doable.”

A cookout and family time was high on his agenda for the evening, Thompson said.

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