Capt. Michael Haley squeezed his son and daughter before reaching over for a long embrace with his wife, S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, after returning home Thursday from a nearly year-long deployment in Afghanistan.
“We just got our Christmas gift,” Nikki Haley said after the couple kissed and she wiped away tears.
Michael Haley said he felt “terrific” as he and more than 40 other members of a South Carolina National Guard agriculture-training unit were welcomed back to the United States by their families near the Columbia airport.
Haley is the first spouse of a sitting governor to deploy to a combat zone with the National Guard, according to military groups.
Haley was a part of Agribusiness Development Team 3-49 that left South Carolina in January and spent a month training in Indiana before heading to Afghanistan to help farmers swap poppy crops – used to make the main ingredient in heroin – for food crops.
“You have ... helped secure the safety of this country, but you’ve also given hope to the citizens of the country of Afghanistan,” S.C. National Guard Brig. Gen. Roy McCarty told the soldiers and their families in a hangar. “You have planted the seed, both literally and figuratively, to help them secure their future and to develop themselves so they can proceed on beyond U.S. and other Allied forces being there.”
Another 300 S.C. National Guard members are expected to return from Afghanistan to the Palmetto State over the holidays. That leaves about 400 S.C. National Guard soldiers and airmen in Afghanistan, but all should be home by the end of 2014 – the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal from the region.
About 17,000 S.C. National Guard soldiers and airmen have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, McCarty said. The guard has about 12,000 members – so some have gone on more than one overseas tour since the terrorist attacks.
The guard has become more seasoned and experienced with the deployments, leaders said.
“We have a much better trained force -- much more technically and professional competent,” McCarty said. “They also may bring back skills and leadership qualities that may help their civilian employers.”
McCarty added some Guard members will need to adjust after serving during the deployment-filled, 12-year war on terrorism.
“When we have a more stabilized force back in South Carolina, we will have to make some transitions,” he said. “There is a different skill set we need to be prepared for.”
That could mean more work inside the state and elsewhere in the country, he said. Some Guard members also could go overseas to Europe and Colombia, which has an agreement to trade know-how and personnel with the S.C. National Guard.
On Thursday, families awaited the return of loved ones with banners, shiny balloons and messages scrawled on car windows, including one that read, “Watch Out. ... Big Hugs and Kisses for Daddy on Board!!!”
Annalyn Cuccia of Florence said she lost 100 pounds – dropping to a size 10 from a size 24 – while her fiance , Spc. Marquis McClam was deployed. She said put a photo of him in his military uniform in her living room where she did aerobics.
“Every time I was working out, I was like, ‘I’m going to give him something nice to come home to,’ ” the mother of three said.
McClam said he liked the results: “I knew she could do it.”
Maj. James Morris couldn’t take his eyes off his five children, who all held handmade signs when he was reunited with his family. “They all used to be a little bit shorter.”
Just before the soldiers arrived, Morris’ wife, Kari, chatted with Gov. Haley about how they and their children struggled during the first three months of the deployment, which both agreed was the most difficult period.
“It’s a big transition – from having your partner to having no one,” said Morris of Columbia.
Kari Morris said her husband did not realize who Michael Haley was until he saw news reports before their training for Afghanistan.
“He said (Michael Haley) was an awesome guy.”