ROCK HILL — In a mix of cheer and sorrow Tuesday, friends and family of more than 160 National Guard men and women now active duty soldiers in the U.S. Army saw their loved ones off to training and then to Afghanistan.
Some soldiers are returning to Afghanistan, where the United States has been at war for more than a decade in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Gena Harris of McConnells watched her husband, Perry Harris, climb aboard a bus for his third deployment since 2003.
Asked how she prepared for the day she had to say goodbye again, she said, I pray and I think positively. I feel I have a lot of support behind me family, friends and other Guard families.
Two companies of the 178th Engineer Battalion boarded buses Tuesday at the Rock Hill armory.
The soldiers headed to Columbia, then to Fort Bliss, Texas, for additional training before deploying to eastern Afghanistan. There, the soldiers will have engineering, construction and route-clearance duties in support for more than 1,000 soldiers, said Command Sgt. Major Joe Medlin.
Pfc. Courtney Strong, 20, of Rock Hill seemed cheerful Tuesday while waiting with her parents and boyfriend to leave Rock Hill for her first deployment.
Strong is a chemical specialist who can help with decontamination if, for example, a virus breaks out.
Its really important, Strong said of her job, but its probably not going to happen. So thats good.
Strong is not worried about her deployment, but it is upsetting to leave behind her family, her boyfriend Casey McCarthy, who does a similar job as Strongs in the U.S. Army Reserves in Pennsylvania, and her dog.
Members of Rock Hill Rolling Thunder, the American Legion Riders and others fired up their motorcycles and escorted the soldiers to Columbia. The Newport Volunteer Fire Department extended its ladder to hoist an American Flag high above the street at the armory.
Before leaving, the bikers held hands and prayed, led by Chief Warrant Officer Steve Davis, a member of the Rolling Thunder and the Riders of Faith Biker Church, where hes an elder.
Davis, who has been in the service for 32 years and is entering his third deployment,
said the escort was very heartwarming.
He gave hugs and words of encouragement to friends whose children were heading overseas with him, saying hed take care of them.
Christine Bledsoe of York who suffered severe injuries after a motorcycle accident 10 months ago that killed her husband said goodbye to her son, Spc. Tommy Dale Bledsoe, for his first deployment.
To honor her son and the other soldiers, Bledsoe decided Tuesday would be the day she would climb back on a motorcycle.
I know in my heart if my husband were alive, wed be in this together, she said.
Spc. James Miller and his wife, Tina, were saying there goodbyes less than two months before their first wedding anniversary.
Miller, 26, has been in the Guard for six years and had a chance to get out, but he decided to stay in to go serve overseas with the men and women with whom he trained.
In Afghanistan, he will help with transportation.
Im more nervous about my family at home than I am about myself overseas, Miller said. Where were going, with the training we have, we got a pretty good forward operating base, Im not going to be overly concerned with that.
Miller said he was more worried about back at home...and how theyre going to cope without me around.
Tina Miller said talks about whether her husband should stay in the Guard werent easy talks.
But Miller got his way, she said.
Im proud of him, but its hard, she said. I was trying to fatten him up so he wouldnt pass his PT (physical training) test.
That didnt work.
The more I fed him, the more he went to the gym.
Before 9 a.m., soldiers were commanded to fall into formation. One by one, as their names were called, they moved toward their buses, offering final embraces to loved ones waiting to intercept them.
Once all the soldiers were aboard, the motorcycles fired their engines and led the procession past loving messages written on poster board signs, and hands, both tiny and grown, waving miniature American flags and wiping away tears.
When the procession was out of sight, those who remained turned to each other for more embraces and conversation, gathered their signs, put away their cameras and had mostly dispersed before the fire department lowered its flag.
Jamie Self 803-329-4062