FORT STEWART, Ga. -- The first group of S.C. National Guard soldiers to go to Afghanistan returned home Wednesday to cheers, applause and tears of joy.
Roughly 170 soldiers from the Guard's 1st Battalion, 263rd Armor Regiment arrived here about 6:30 p.m. -- nearly four hours late.
Neither the soldiers in the Marion-based unit nor 100 family members who greeted them here seemed to mind the delay.
"I'm just glad he's back in the United States," said Christina Paulsen of Laurens, wife of Spc. Matthew Paulsen.
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Spc. Jemar Reaves of Mullins was so excited to see his wife that he didn't bother searching for her on the dark parade field.
Instead, he asked the public address announcer to page her.
When Latasha Reaves heard the announcement, she ran across the field and jumped into her husband's arms.
Waiting for a long time
Spc. Reaves lifted his wife off the ground as the couple embraced. "I love it," Reaves said. "I've been waiting a year to see her."
Spc. Paulsen also had been waiting a year for this moment.
"Let me have her," Paulsen said as he reached for his 13-month-old daughter, Rylee, who was in her mother's arms.
Rylee was born when Paulsen was training at Camp Shelby, Miss., for his yearlong Afghanistan mission.
Other than a few weeks of leave, Paulsen has been overseas almost all of Rylee's life. (The couple also has a 3-year-old girl, Trinette.)
The unit, part of the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team, was mobilized in October 2006. It deployed to Afghanistan last January.
The soldiers spent the first half of their Afghan tour providing security, manning convoys and patrolling neighborhoods near coalition bases. Then, in July, most were shifted to mentoring Afghan forces.
The 218th commands Task Force Phoenix, a multinational coalition unit charged with training and mentoring the Afghan army and police.
Brig. Gen. Bob Livingston, the Columbia businessman who is commander of the 218th and Task Force Phoenix, praised the troops' work.
Livingston, who is home on leave, said up to 300 Afghan police were dying each month before they started working with the Guard members. Since then, police deaths have dropped to 20 to 30 a month, Livingston said.
Besides saving lives, the troops also helped Afghan police prevent Taliban forces from overrunning any of the country's 395 police district centers, for the first winter since the war started in 2001.
"They have truly changed Afghanistan, and they have truly changed the world," Livingston said.
Others to come home in May
The unit had 200 soldiers when it mobilized in mid-October from Marion, where a departure ceremony was held.
However, Capt. David Fowler of Union said more than two dozen soldiers volunteered to stay in Afghanistan. They will return home in May with the rest of the brigade's 1,600 members.
Two members of the unit -- Staff Sgt. James Bullard of Marion and Sgt. Edward Philpot of Latta -- died in Afghanistan.
The troops will spend the next three days filling out Army paperwork and undergoing physical examinations.
They'll leave Fort Stewart on Sunday. Most will return home with their families. However, some troops will ride buses back to their hometown armories.
Getting reacquainted with family and readjusted to civilian life at home tops the troops' to-do list.
That will take time.
"It doesn't even feel real right now," Sgt. 1st Class Tony Johnson of Marion said.
"The grass and trees are green. The air smells fresh."