With the return of 161 area National Guardsmen from Afghanistan expected within weeks, the death of an Indiana soldier who worked with those York County men and women has turned families from nervousness to outright anxiety.
“Pins and needles, all of us,” said Leanne Pressley, wife of warrant officer Colin Pressley. “They just need to come home.”
The Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers from the Rock Hill armory have been in Afghanistan since August, tasked with dangerous route-clearance missions.
Since the death Friday of Sgt. Tristan Wade, 23, an Indiana active duty soldier working with his New Mexico-based unit under the command of the 178th, local family members here had almost no contact over the weekend with loved ones in Afghanistan.
Finally, on Monday and Tuesday, some soldiers were able to reassure people back home that the local soldiers were not injured.
“It was a long, stressful weekend,” said Trisha Moore, girlfriend of Staff Sgt. Dan Ranucci. “For everyone with a soldier over there.”
The 178th soldiers run the unit stationed in Sharana in eastern Afghanistan called Task Force Prowler, making up about a quarter of the 700 troops. The 178th command staff also have several other units under its command, including Wade’s unit and reserve components from other states.
Wade died when an insurgent attacked him with a homemade bomb. In November, three Army reservists from New York, who were working for the 178th, were killed by a homemade bomb, often called an IED or improvised explosive device.
Whatever the bomb is called, the families back home hate them.
“I just want my son to get home safe,” said Johnny Ramsey of Clover, whose son, Staff Sgt. Marion Ramsey, is on his fourth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Johnny Ramsey is a Korean War veteran himself who was wounded in action. He is the same Johnny Ramsey who was jailed by a Clover judge late last year for failing to clean up junk from his yard.
“I want them all to come home safe,” Ramsey said. “All of them have put in their time. This war over there has been going on too darn long. Bring ’em home.”
There is no exact date for the return of the 178th. The unit had planned to hand over command to replacements by the second week of May, but it might not get back to South Carolina until late May or early June. There are more than a dozen women among the 161 soldiers.
And at the end of a deployment, the last missions are the most terrifying.
“The first one – when you get there and you don’t know anything – and that last one when it is about to be over, those are the missions that are the hardest,” said recently retired Sgt. Chris Hoagland, a York County veterans services worker who deployed with the Fort Mill National Guard to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is tough on the soldiers, and it is tough on people back home.”
Retired Army Gen. Paul “Gene” Blackwell of York, who led thousands of soldiers in Iraq during the first Gulf War, said the last missions lead to “apprehension” as soldiers know that the time to leave is near.
Plus, the breaking of winter in Afghanistan has “without question” led to more attacks by the enemy, Blackwell said.
“Early in any deployment, there is a resolve among the soldiers, an understanding, that they may or may not survive the mission,” Blackwell said. “But at the end, soldiers can and do think to themselves, ‘It looks like I am really gonna make it.’ And the caution level rises.”
Wade, like all the soldiers of Task Force Prowler, was due to come home within weeks.
“This is the price we pay for these missions, and it is a terrible price,” said Blackwell.
Lt. Col. Corol Dobson of Rock Hill, commander of Task Force Prowler in Afghanistan, described the feeling of the men and women under his command after Wade’s death: “Our hearts are heavy.”
The family of York soldier Sgt. Robert Littlejohn is trying to cope with uncertainty the best it can, said Peatsa Meek, the matriarch of the family.
“It’s hard on Robert’s wife and his kids, and we all just want to get them all home,” Meek said Tuesday. “This weekend nobody knew anything.”
Brian Dunn of Rock Hill and his wife, Erica, know the dangers of combat. Dunn, a marine, was wounded by an IED in 2005 in Iraq and has spent eight years recovering, including surgery in Germany to repair his back.
“I think about those guys over there every day,” said Dunn, now medically discharged from the service. “The end of the deployment is a hard time for everybody.”
Erica Dunn said families waiting for troops to come home are under terrible stress.
“We as a community and country have to do all we can for all of them,” she said.
On Saturday the ladies auxiliary of the Rock Hill VFW Post 2889 is holding an Easter Egg hunt for kids of the 178th families.
“Anyone who wants to come by and support these people, help them and show them that they care, is welcome,” said Linda Davenport of the VFW auxiliary. “It’s rough right now.”
At the Rock Hill armory, the home base for the 161 area soldiers, fresh yellow ribbons have been placed on the unit’s sign and around two trees near the door. Yellow ribbons are a symbol of waiting for a loved one to come home.
Every family of these soldiers has a yellow ribbon around their hearts right now, wishing that the clock would move faster.
Since 2001, eight military men and women from York and Chester counties have died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Deaths in war do not fade.
“It’s never easy,” said Cynthia Butler of Rock Hill, whose grandson, Marine Cpl. Kenneth James Butler, was killed in 2005. “I feel for those families. They worry so much.”