As the people of York, Chester and Lancaster counties prepare to celebrate Christmas with family, more than 160 military families do not have that option as the soldiers of Rock Hill’s Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers remain in Afghanistan.
Those families, the spouses and daughters and sons, have to try and get through Christmas without the soldier.
For weeks, the Family Readiness Group of volunteers, many families, even groups such as the Dutchman Creek Middle School and York Cougar band, have collected supplies and sent hundreds of boxes to the unit, filled with everything from beef jerky to toothpaste.
One 14-year-old girl from York, Anna Littlejohn, said earlier this month as she was packing donations to be sent to her father, Sgt. Robert Littlejohn: “I miss you daddy. Merry Christmas and stay safe.”
She cried and she cried.
Those tears are in so many homes this week. Phone calls and computer access is limited for the soldiers. Trisha Moore, girlfriend of Staff Sgt. Dan Ranucci, wrote this to her beloved that she wanted to share with others:
“I Love You and I Miss You, I can say those words a thousand times and I still feel like they are not enough. No one can really explain the way it feels to miss someone so much that the air you breathe feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. I am so proud of you and all the ones with you. It is heart warming to know that as a soldier you will stand and fight not because of what you hate in front of you, but because you love what you left behind. We are based on a brief communication where I love you and I’m okay speaks more than volumes and gives me the strength to keep going. I hold onto our promises and have faith that you and the rest will come home safe. I will be right here waiting for you. XoXo. I love you to the moon and back. Merry Christmas my love!”
In Lancaster, Denise Lloyd wanted her son, Spc. Eddie Hall, just 22 years old to know this: “We love you and miss you and await your safe return. Merry Christmas. Love, Mom and Dad.”
Simple words, across the world from a son.
Leanne Pressley, wife of warrant officer Colin Pressley, spearheaded many of the collections that sent pieces of home to the soldiers.
Pressley wrote a poem for Christmas that she wanted to share with others called ‘Proud Army Wife.’
“Loving a soldier has a high price to pay..
it's an ache in your heart while he is away.
It's being alone with nothing to hold...
All of your nights can be so very cold.
Reluctantly, Painfully, letting him go..
While your dying inside for wanting him so.
Watching him go, while your eyes fill with tears...
Standing alone with your hopes, dreams and fears.
As Days go by, there is no way to tell...
You just wait for a call to say his is well.
Then the call comes in and your filled with joy...
You’re like a small child with a shiny new toy.
Weeks are now months, and months are a year..
You wait for the day when you'll have no more fear.
Time passes by slowly yet it's gone so fast...
You can not wait till he is home at last.
Yes, loving a soldier brings loneliness and fears...
Sometimes you may even see my tears.
I do what I do so he can see...
How truly amazing he is to me.
He does what he does so we can be free...
His sacrifice and service amazes me.
I patiently wait for the day he is back in my life...
I am and always will be a Proud Army Wife.”
The love and pride for these soldiers comes from families and friends who miss them at Christmas.
From Teresa Dawley to her friend, Sgt. Jeffrey Wilkinson:
I am so proud to call you my friend. I love you and I miss you! Thank you for your service.
The messages are heartfelt and difficult:
From Stephanie Hicklin to her husband, Sgt. Kevin Hicklin:
“Sgt. Kevin Hicklin-You are our true hero! Merry Christmas!! Love you always-Stephanie, Gracie, Cooper and all your friends and family!”
The 178th, made up of two companies, includes many soldiers on the second deployment to Afghanistan, and a few on third and even fourth deployments. The soldiers arrived in Afghanistan in August and will not return in until at least mid-2013.
The unit, called Task Force Prowler, is tasked with dangerous duties of road clearance. On Nov. 3, three soldiers from New York attached to the unit were killed when a suicide bomber attacked their squad.
Yet these men do not stop doing what they are tasked to do, even as Christmas without family looms. Lt Col. Corol Dobson, the unit commanding officer, wrote this to the families back here at home in the unit newsletter about the unit as Christmas approached:
“We (178th Engineer Battalion) are nearing our half-way point and the soldiers are performing well. All of you back home should be proud of the Task Force Prowler team.
We are continuously being noted by the leadership for accomplishing missions that were thought to be nearly impossible. Our leaders keep “loading our plates” because they know we can do it. It’s good for us because it makes the time fly by, as well.
Understand that during the holiday season, your soldiers are thinking of you and I know you are of them. This is a time when some can get lonely and “down”, but I want you to know that there are “lights at the end of the tunnel” and soon you will be reunited. And that one of those “lights” (at the end of the tunnel) is knowing that your soldier is accomplishing the most noble tasks known to man: keeping our families, communities and our way of life safe from harm.
I tell your soldiers that they are what stands between good and evil. And of course the families and communities play a big part in our success. For, if you all didn’t keep things running smoothly back home, our jobs would be exponentially more difficult. In this season of family, merriment and traditions, let us not forget our brothers from New York who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Staff Sgt. Venne, Staff Sgt. Gornewicz, and SPC Jayne and their families have a special place in my prayers.
So remain vigilant, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Sapper Strong!”
Command Sgt. Major Joe Medlin, the top enlisted man in the unit, wrote this to the families back home:
“Hello once again to all the Prowler Families. I hope that all are doing well! It has started to turn colder here in RC East including here in Sharana. We have made a lot of progress in the last couple of months. We have deconstructed forward operating bases, delivered much needed materials to outlying bases and continue to make the roads safer for all to travel.
The Soldiers of Task Force Prowler continue to get accolades from senior ranking officers for our professionalism and accomplishments here in Afghanistan. We do not forget that success here is the shortest road back to you all, our families. I thank you for continuing to allow Task Force Prowler to borrow your loved one to make the world a better place. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and look forward to seeing you all soon.
In Afghanistan, many of the soldiers have tried to make little grottos of a Christmas tree, or something, to remind them of home. But Afghanistan is the other side of the world. It is not home.
But those soldiers in Afghanistan are not forgotten, and the families here are not, either.
Saturday, the day after a fire at a Rock Hill apartment complex, a man showed up to volunteer to help the families who were affected. He cleaned an apartment, brought what he could to help.
His name is Dan Ranucci Sr. – father of that Staff Sgt. Dan Ranucci who is in Afghanistan.
“My son texted me and asked what I wanted for Christmas, and I told him all I wanted was for him to come home to us safe. That’s the only present any of these families want.”
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065