Soldiers dressed in fatigues and sand-colored boots filed onto the floor of the Winthrop Coliseum Sunday morning—each making a sharp turn down an aisle before settling into place and standing at attention.
More than 160 soldiers from the Army National Guard’s 178th Engineer Battalion were honored at a Freedom Salute ceremony, which celebrated their safe return home from Afghanistan and recognized their valor and contributions to the U.S. effort there.
The salute came three months after the soldiers returned to the United States on May 31 and just days before the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Since the attacks, nearly 1,000 citizen-soldiers from York, Chester and Lancaster counties have been deployed in combat or have been placed on active duty.
“What we provided the Afghan people is a time of transition,” said Lt. Col. Corol B. Dobson, battalion commander of the 178th Engineer Battalion. Dobson congratulated the soldiers for their dedication, their service, and urged them to thank friends and family on the bleachers and back home who kept things going in their absence.
The Rock Hill-based 178th includes soldiers from units throughout the Upstate—some have served as many as five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most recent deployment in Afghanistan began last summer with training in Texas, followed by months overseas, clearing roadside bombs and other hazards as well as helping with construction efforts and training Afghani engineers.
Sunday’s event opened up with remarks from military commanders as well as state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.
“The word ‘hero’ is used so often it’s become trite and meaningless,” Hayes said, before pointing to the soldiers’ willingness to risk their lives to preserve freedom. “In my vote, that’s the true definition of the word, ‘hero.’”
Hayes also recited a few lines from a prayer General Douglas MacArthur wrote for his son during WWII. The prayer asked God to make MacArthur’s son “one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat and humble and gentle in victory.”
One-by-one, soldiers walked onstage to receive a commemorative item recognizing their specific number of deployments as family members stationed on bleachers cheered and waved small U.S. flags.
Becky Broughton, 56, had worked all night the day before at a Walmart in Lancaster and only had time for a quick shower before heading to Rock Hill to see her “only baby” honored at the salute.
“He’s done real good, lots of medals,” she said with a smile.
When her son left for Afghanistan last year, Broughton remembers a series of goodbye events to see the soldiers off. “That was a lot of byes.”
She said she it’s been nice to say hello.
Broughton’s son, Sgt. Jeremy Campbell, 29, posed for a quick picture to display a special certificate, medallion and coins, all recognizing his first deployment overseas. Campbell said the transition back to life in the U.S. has been “pretty smooth.” He and his wife recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas and also took their 10-year-old son, Wes, on a beach vacation.
When Campbell’s not working at the Rock Hill armory, he said, he’s working on a remodeling project back at home.
“I don’t ever slow down,” he said. “She won’t let me,” he said, gesturing toward his wife, Crystal, with a laugh.
Damon Hemphill, 36, said his first deployment overseas wasn’t bad, but he’s glad to be back home with friends and family. “It’s good to see grass, trees, “ he said.
During his nine months in Afghanistan, Hemphill was stationed in a desert location surrounded by mountains.
Like Campbell, he’s working at the armory and also recently got back from a vacation in Jamaica. “I’m not complaining,” he said.
But for some, the salute isn’t their first.
Amber Smith, 26, from Kershaw in Lancaster, is a new mother welcoming back her father and brother for a second time. Smith knows what it’s like to be a soldier: She actively served in the National Guard’s Lancaster unit in the 178th from 2007 to 2012 and was in Afghanistan for six months.
She said her dad and brother were ecstatic to meet her newborn daughter and have spent the past three months among family. “They’ve been pretty good this time,” Smith said of the men’s transition.
She said the transition was harder for them the first time around. “We just take it one day at a time.”
Not everyone at the salute belonged to a military family. For Pam Allemeier, attending the salute was a civic duty. Allemeier was on her way to church Sunday morning, but she heard a notice about the salute on a local TV station.
She said she quickly found her blue striped T-shirt, a red-starred kerchief, and a flag pin for the occasion. “I keep this thing ready,” she said, pointing to the bedazzled pin.
She was one of several volunteers at First Baptist Church in Rock Hill who served soldiers at a goodbye barbecue at the armory and also sent care packages overseas with remnants of home.
“I wanted to follow it through,” she said. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have the freedom we have.”
Jie Jenny Zou• 803-329-4062