Homecoming is imminent for 161 area Army National Guard soldiers who have spent the past nine months in Afghanistan, now that the soldiers have arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas.
The days soldiers spend “decompressing” and readying for a return to family and community is vital to a seamless reintegration to civilian life, military experts say.
Update The unit will fly in to Columbia on May 31, after the soldiers go through extensive demobilization, said Lt. Brock Eastman, public affairs officer for the unit. The soldiers arrived in Texas over the weekend.
At Fort Bliss, the soldiers are going through medical testing and making sure each soldier has legal, financial and employment affairs in order. Federal laws ensure that deployed soldiers retain the civilian jobs they left when they were called to active duty.
“What happens is a reintegration into civilian society,” said Gen. Gene Blackwell, a retired general from York who served in combat in both Vietnam and the first Gulf War.
Blackwell had thousands of soldiers under his command in Iraq in the early 1990s who had to return to “normal lives” after combat, and the Army is even more cognizant now of the stresses that soldiers face when coming home.
In a war zone, the safety of the soldier and all soldiers around him depends on everyone’s following orders. Civilian life is far more give and take – in families, in job settings, in most facets of life.
“This gives the soldier a chance to decompress, to get ready for family, to get used to a more normal pace of life after the extremely hectic pace of war service,” Blackwell said.
Now that soldiers are “back on American soil,” each is able to turn off the constant threat of bullets and bombs that is part of being in the war zone, said Col. John Gossett, a retired officer from Clover who also helped lead hundreds of soldiers in the Gulf War two decades ago.
The 178th had the very dangerous mission of bomb disposal and route clearance. Four soldiers from New York and New Mexico units working with the 178th were killed in action by suicide bombers.
The local soldiers went on 47 missions and covered more than 10,000 miles of roads. They also trained Afghan forces.
“To get back and see all that is American is a great relief, and it takes a few days for these soldiers to take it all in,” Gossett said. “They can eat an American meal, walk around and see American people doing what we take for granted every day. They can relax, mingle, after spending months not being able to relax at all.
“This is a time when these soldiers do not have to carry their weapon, wear an armored vest and helmet. They don’t have to worry about who ‘has their back,’ because America now has their back.”
Regardless of anyone’s perspective on the Afghanistan war, how long U.S. troops have been there and whether the goals of the war were accomplished, there is a general acceptance of the men and women who served as having done their duty and done it well, Gossett and Blackwell said.
“This was a very tough mission and these soldiers performed with great honor and success,” Gossett said.
All 178th soldiers are volunteers who have civilian jobs and lives outside the military, and many are finishing second, third, even fourth tours of deployment.
The unit has young enlisted men under age 20, grandfathers over age 50 and all ages in between. It has more than a dozen women.
“When we came home from Vietnam, times were different and the country was different,” Blackwell said. “There is now a general acceptance of the men and women wearing the uniform as having done their duty in a very difficult situation.”
A formal homecoming will not happen in Rock Hill for several weeks, Blackwell said, but that doesn’t mean the public can’t welcome the soldiers back.
Many groups have already made signs that the unit’s Family Readiness Group will take to the homecoming in Columbia. Students at Finley Road Elementary School have created more than 20 posters. Any person or group can welcome home a soldier – or all of them.
“It never goes out of vogue to tie a yellow ribbon around a tree,” Blackwell said. “Anyone can make a sign or write a letter to The Herald and say to these men and women, ‘Thank you for a job well done, and welcome home.’ ”