Andrew Dys

November 6, 2012

Rock Hill soldiers in Afghanistan vote absentee

The soldiers of the S.C. Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers, based in Rock Hill, took time to cast absentee ballots in today's election.

Each of the thousands of absentee ballots that will be counted at the York County elections office counts the same.

One person, one vote.

But about 160 of these ballots seem to matter a little bit more – even if the votes count just the same.

The ballots hold votes for politicians who decide if fathers and sons and husbands, wives and mothers and daughters, go to war.

Those 160 voters are, today, in bunkers dug into desert and rocky hillsides. They are wearing flak jackets and helmets and carrying M-16 rifles.

The people on the other side of the mountain are trying to kill these voters.

These absentee voters are the soldiers of the S.C. Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers, based in Rock Hill. All these 160-plus men and women are deployed in combat in Afghanistan.

“The vote sure matters to these soldiers,” said Leanne Pressley, wife of Colin Pressley, a chief warrant officer with the unit. “That’s what they are fighting for.”

Before the 178th left in July, workers with the York County Voter Registration and Elections Office went to the Rock Hill armory to make sure all the soldiers were registered to vote. Then they made sure they were able to get an absentee ballot.

“When we found out that they were leaving, we wanted to make sure that all those men and women were taken care of, that each knew that they had a right to vote,” said Wanda Hemphill, the county’s director of elections. “That was an honor, helping those soldiers.”

One of the workers at the elections office, April Smith, put it this way: “These soldiers all seemed eager to vote. They sure deserve to be able to vote. They are over there so everyone else can vote.”

Command Sergeant Major Joe Medlin, the top enlisted man in the 178th, was appointed voter assistance officer for the unit. Medlin and the elections staff made sure each soldier had the right ballot, the information, to vote.

“Everyone who wanted to vote had the opportunity,” Medlin wrote in an email from Afghanistan.

Asked if the soldiers took that opportunity, Medlin proudly wrote: “We did!”

These soldiers took time for their school boards and county councils and congressmen and president, as the bombs are blowing up around them.

The 178th is based in eastern Afghanistan, Paktia province, near the Pakistan border. The unit’s role is construction and route clearance, including defusing and removing bombs from the treacherous roads.

The soldiers from Rock Hill go out for days at a time on missions that are the most dangerous jobs on earth. Paktia province is where soldiers fight and die.

Just Saturday, three Army Reserve soldiers from upstate New York who are part of a unit attached to the 178th were killed when insurgents blew up a bomb in an attack on the unit.

No other soldiers were killed and no South Carolina Guardsmen were injured, officials with the Army said.

But the men and women of the 178th worked closely with those three soldiers who died so Afghanistan might have free elections and terrorists do not disrupt our elections.

And here, on Election Day, some people don’t bother to vote at all.

On Monday, there was a line to vote absentee at the elections office in York. A few people moaned about the short wait, 15 minutes or so.

One woman with a husband in the hospital wanted him to be able to vote absentee, but he was not present so he couldn’t vote. She was not pleased.

Another woman said she had a cold. She wanted faster service

People hemmed and hawed and complained about this or that. One guy said he was busy, that voting was a hassle.

The elections office staff helped all these votes, since as all of their votes matter. The office was hectic, the phones rang constantly. Few people, if any, smiled.

Meanwhile, other voters from York County, in Afghanistan, prayed to stay alive. A staff sergeant from Sharon who voted, with 16 men huddled around him who also voted, was surrounded by machine gun fire.

Today, as America and York County votes, the command staff of the 178th from Rock Hill will ready the three bodies of their fallen New York comrades to come home to grieving families.

Other soldiers from York and Chester and Fort Mill will be out on roads in Afghanistan that have bombs hidden on them. There are no holidays, no days off, in war.

Politicians who win today’s election, those who started this war and run this war, will thank the voters around America. They will face no bullets or bombs while talking of the greatness of American democracy and the vote.

Those politicians should pause a minute and thank those voters from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who are up to their ears in rocks and sand and bombs and bullets in Afghanistan.

And so should we all.

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