Finally, for military families of Fort Mill Army National Guard soldiers who spent the last 10 months clearing roads of bombs in Afghanistan, the anguish and wait is almost over. The 105-member 1222nd Sapper Company is returning to the United States and expected back in South Carolina as early as Friday, according to military officials and families of the soldiers.
Although military transport times can change, a brief "Welcome Home" for family members, friends, and military dignitaries is planned for Friday at an airfield in Columbia, said Maj. Coral Dobson, executive officer of the 178th Battalion headquartered in Rock Hill. The Fort Mill company is part of the battalion.
"It is subject to change, but right now, we are looking at a short ceremony, then get these soldiers back to their families so they can go home," said Dobson, an Afghanistan war veteran himself. "They have earned it. What they did in Afghanistan is the most dangerous job in the world. Road clearance in Afghanistan - doesn't get any more dangerous than that."
The combat engineering unit, along with another company from Wellford that will come home a week later, tackled more than 500 missions, clearing more than 20,000 miles of roads during the deployment.
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Additionally, the 1222nd trained Afghan National Army soldiers on equipment and tactics that are crucial to the Afghans taking over defense of the country when American combat troops eventually leave.
The people of not just Fort Mill, but South Carolina and the country should be proud of these soldiers, said Joe Medlin, command sergeant major for the 178th Battalion.
"These warriors did the toughest jobs under some of the harshest conditions, and they did it well," said Medlin.
A pair of soldiers from the Army National Guard's 1221st Company out of Batesburg-Leesville died Oct. 1. The Fort Mill unit saw combat for months.
Some soldiers suffered injuries, but there were no fatalities.
"The guys are so excited to get home safe, and we are so happy, too," said Tammi Kimbrell, wife of soldier Eric Kimbrell, who will have completed his third deployment.
The Fort Mill unit is filled with many soldiers who are ending their second or third deployments since National Guard units began active duty missions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
When those soldiers returned in 2004 and 2008, they returned to large community celebrations at the Rock Hill armory. Because the soldiers will be released directly to families in Columbia, no immediate community event is planned.
This is the unit that warmed the hearts of America in December, when tens of thousands of dollars in donations from Herald readers locally and across the country who read about it on the Internet - plus $25,000 from Lowe's stores - brought the soldiers home for a week of leave over the Christmas holidays. A welcome home at the Fort Mill Lowe's store two days before Christmas attracted almost 1,000 people.
A formal ceremony open to the public honoring all the soldiers and recognizing individual and unit commendations and medals will be held in February, said Wanda Bennett, president of the unit's Family Readiness Group and mother of unit soldier Alan Bennett.
Before coming home, the soldiers will spend several days at Fort Dix, N.J., for post-deployment processing.
Until Friday, the daughters and sons, mothers and wives, will have to wait a little longer.
"I just can't wait - the whole family is going to be in Columbia to welcome them home," said Kelly White, wife of unit soldier Mark White.
Many families are making banners and signs to take to Columbia, including Jacob and Andrew Hawthorne, ages 9 and 13.
The boys' older brother, Michael Semko, is part of the Fort Mill unit.
"It's just great to have him coming home," Andrew said.