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For guardsmen, S.C. homecoming is all too brief

The mechanics at the Newberry Wal-Mart's auto repair shop took too long to find a tire for Todd Griffith's Ford Contour sedan.

Griffith, 42, stormed out of the garage, got behind the wheel of his car and waved for his family to follow in their van. Then he shifted into reverse and gunned his Ford out of the parking lot.

Later, Griffith admitted he lost his cool. He apologized.

"I have found that I'm a little bit more easily irritated," he said.

It had been two days since Griffith came home after spending three months at Camp Shelby, Miss., with the S.C. National Guard's 218th Combat Brigade. Griffith and 1,400 other Guard members have been training at Shelby for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan that begins in the next two to three weeks.

This morning, Griffith boards a bus back to Mississippi. It will be the last time he sees his family for at least five months. The Army will give him a 14-day break during his year in Afghanistan, but he doesn't know when.

Like Griffith, more than 1,400 other S.C. Guard soldiers have spent the past nine days on leave from Camp Shelby. The break back in South Carolina was designed to give the soldiers a little rest and relax-ation with their families.

The Griffith family celebrated an early birthday for son Timothy, watched movies and worked on projects around the house. The short reunion also hinted at how difficult of an adjustment the Griffith family will face until Todd comes home.

Kim Griffith expected as much. If her husband's flare-up at Wal- Mart rattled her, it didn't show.

"It's that way with all the guys when they come off a mission," she said. SWITCHING GEARS

In the National Guard, Griffith, a sergeant first class, oversees an intelligence section where he and other soldiers keep track of the enemy. In that role, Griffith is the boss; no one questions his orders. At home, it's different.

One morning last week, the Griffith family was working in the yard, raking leaves and limbs from pecan trees. At times, Todd Griffith would look up to see an abandoned rake or shovel. He checked his urge to shout an order.

"You get used to the structure," he said. "There's no lip back. There's no 'I'll get it later' or 'Why me?' "

When Griffith finishes his deployment in mid-2008, the National Guard will keep him on active duty for another 60 days. That time is designed to give him a period to readjust to life at home.

"I already told Kim that I'll definitely have to use my 60 days and not go back to work," he said. "I'll have to spend at least a week just in the house. The military knows it, too."

The National Guard has spoken to families about the readjustments after a long deployment. More advice will be given throughout the year, especially as the date to return to South Carolina nears.

"The family needs to understand they don't need to put demands on us or push," Todd Griffith said. A PART OF HISTORY

Griffith didn't have to accept this mission to Afghanistan.

Kim Griffith had just finished treatment for breast cancer when he left in January. Daughter Katherine, 9, will undergo foot surgery in June; she has cerebral palsy.

"If I had just said, 'No,' no one would have questioned me," Todd Griffith said.

But Griffith could not bring himself to do that.

First, he felt a responsibility for the soldiers under his supervision. He could not stand the guilt of sending them to a war zone while he stayed back. He asked: What if something happened to them and I could have prevented it?

Second, Griffith admits he is selfish. He wants the distinction of wearing the 218th's crossed bayonet symbol as a combat patch.

After serving with a unit in a war zone, soldiers forever wear that insignia on their uniform's right sleeve. Soldiers who have not been to war do not wear a patch on their right arm, so it's a source of pride for those who wear one.

"I don't have many more years I'm going to stay in," he said. "Once you get your battle patch, you've got it forever."

Todd and Kim Griffith hashed out an agreement about the deployment: This will be his last.

"You really don't want them to go," said Kim Griffith, 42. "I knew that it's something he wanted to do, and I didn't feel right asking him not to go." TIME FOR WORK;

TIME FOR PLAY

The nine-day break from training back in South Carolina blew by.

The Griffith family squeezed as much fun into the time as they could. But the dread of the deployment always lurked on the horizon.

Griffith slept late his first day home and lounged around the house with his family.

By Thursday, though, he was working through a list of chores.

"I came home to a bathroom gurgling, which means I have septic- tank problems," he said.

Griffith already had plans to overhaul a lawn mower, work in the yard and make a few minor home repairs. He wanted to fix up the Contour because his son Timothy will turn 15 and then 16 during the deployment.

"I'm going to drive it to pick him up at the airport when he comes home," Timothy said.

Todd Griffith visited the Newberry County Volunteer Fire Department, where he is a firefighter, to drive one of its new trucks.

The family celebrated Timothy's 15th birthday, which is Tuesday. They went to a movie together and joined Griffith's extended family for a meal.

Todd Griffith spent a morning cooking breakfast with Katherine, a ritual shared on weekends when father and daughter bond over bacon and eggs while others sleep.

It is moments like that breakfast that Griffith said he will miss the most. He said other soldiers share the same feelings.

"If you ask any family, there's always something," he said.

Griffith's list of worries about his family and home is long.

"Will the roof leak? Will the washing machine break down? Will the cars break down? Will they get serviced? Will Katherine fall and get hurt? How will her surgery turn out? Will there be enough family there to support Kim without me being here? "I can just hope for the best."

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