Upstate soldiers return home after year’s peacekeeping deployment

drew.brooks@shj.comJune 4, 2013 

Soldiers in the South Carolina National Guard's 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade are welcomed home from their nine-month deployment to Kosovo, during a special ceremony held at the Bravo Company 1-118th Infrantry Regiment in Gaffney, Tuesday morning, 6-4-2013. Sgt. Bo Locklear holds his daughter Madelyn, 7, as the family is reunited Tuesday.

TIM KIMZEY — tim.kimzey@shj.com

— Words weren’t enough for many of the soldiers with ties to the Upstate who were welcomed home Tuesday after spending much of the past year deployed overseas.

The soldiers, who deployed as part of the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, served as part of a peacekeeping force in Kosovo and lived without many of the comforts of home while missing holidays, anniversaries and birthdays.

Sgt. Bo Locklear, of Lake Wylie, missed the birth of his daughter, Avery.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Green, of Harrisburg, N.C., is looking forward to a good slice of pizza.

Sgt. 1st Class Donnie Henderson, of Lattimore, N.C., missed private showers and livermush, a southern delicacy common in the North Carolina foothills.

The soldiers, with B Company, 118th Infantry Regiment, were welcomed home by hundreds of excited family members and friends who lined the roadway and packed into the National Guard armory on Hampshire Drive.

B Company, based in Gaffney, was one of four South Carolina units to return home Tuesday. In all, more than 400 soldiers were reunited with their families and loved ones at ceremonies in Gaffney, Union, Conway and Charleston.

At the peak of the deployment, nearly 500 S.C. National Guard troops were deployed, officials said. Those units began returning in early May and Tuesday’s ceremonies were the last for returning soldiers.

In Gaffney, Maj. Gen. Lester D. Eisner, deputy adjutant general, praised the men and their families for their sacrifices.

“Kosovo is a very, very unsung area of the world,” he said. “It’s extremely important that you helped maintain stability.”

Capt. Benjamin Thornton, commander of B Company, thanked the families in attendance, adding that their sacrifices were often greater than those made by the deployed troops.

Cindy Green, wife of Sgt. 1st Class Michael Green, is no stranger to deployments, as she welcomed her husband home from his fourth tour overseas.

But his return wasn’t any less sweet.

“It’s indescribable,” she said. “It’s like waiting for the lottery, and you win and you see that you win, but you’re still shaking.”

On this deployment, Cindy Green said she knew the chances her husband would be injured on the peacekeeping mission were slim to none.

“It was a lot less stress,” she said. “But it was harder on the homefront.”

The Greens have two children who came to welcome their father home, 8-year-old Michaela and 2-year-old Michael, and at times Cindy Green said keeping the household together was difficult and frustrating.

“Once he left, everything just started breaking,” she said, laughing at the thought of herself fixing the dishwasher while sobbing uncontrollably and thinking that her husband should be home to fix it.

And while most families were reunited, at least one was introduced.

Claudia Locklear greeted her husband with 7-year-old Madelyn and 5-and-a-half-month-old Avery in tow.

Claudia said it was the first time Sgt. 1st Class Bo Locklear met his daughter, not counting Internet chats.

“It’s wonderful,” she said of finally having her husband home. “It felt like he missed so much. She’s grown so much.”

Bo Locklear said he was very excited to meet his new daughter, who smiled “like she’s always known him” when she was first placed in his arms.

Now, the family’s to-do list includes a vacation, buying a new home and “maybe adding another” he said with a nod to Avery.

“I saw her there and it was like I never left,” he said.

Soldiers with B Company have deployed three times since Sept. 11, 2001, including a 2004 tour in Kosovo and a 2007 tour in Afghanistan.

Members of the unit who were part of the Kosovo deployment nearly a decade ago said they saw progress in the country.

Kosovo is a relatively new nation in the Balkan Peninsula of Eastern Europe, north of Greece. It declared independence on Feb. 17, 2008.

The U.S. presence in the country dates to the late 1990s, when NATO forces and other partner nations deployed as a peacekeeping force to ease tensions between Kosovo and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

At one point, outside forces in Kosovo numbered 50,000, officials said. Now, they number about 5,000, including about 750 from the United States who work alongside soldiers from Armenia, Germany, Morocco, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine, among others.

In 2004, B Company worked to stop arms smuggling and had other hands-on missions in hostile territory. On this latest deployment, the soldiers said they were more hands-off outside of humanitarian missions and patrols meant to show off the peacekeeping force in a swath of the country roughly equal in size to Rhode Island.

Soldiers like Green and Henderson said the changes weren’t just with the mission. The country has grown as well.

“It’s come a long way,” Henderson said.

The soldiers handed their mission over to an Army unit based out of Fort Bragg, N.C., late last month, Thornton said.

The handover marks the end of a nearly decade-long stretch where National Guard or Reserve troops maintained the Kosovo mission during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Eisner said there would likely be little difference in the mission performance because the troops share a great deal of experience.

“It truly is a global military,” he said. “We’ve been to Bosnia, Kosovo — all over the world. We’ve done it before and will continue to do that.”

“The men of the 218th did a superb job,” Eisner added. “They executed flawlessly.”

The 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade mobilized in May 2012 and, after training in Indiana, deployed to Kosovo in August 2012.

The soldiers earned numerous awards for their efforts during the deployment, according to a written statement, including 93 Army achievement medals, 59 Army commendation medals and 18 Meritorious Service medals.

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