The soldiers who came home to York County from Afghanistan Friday, to spouses and kids waiting with open arms, are all volunteers.
Each one chose to fight in a war started by politicians, but fought by fathers and husbands, wives and daughters.
The men and women of the Army National Guard’s 178th Combat Engineers, 161 strong, are not active duty soldiers who live on or a near a sprawling Army base where all the people are military, where the duty after deployment is whatever the Army says it is.
These soldiers are our neighbors. They go to church with us. Their kids are in the same class at school. They are in line at the grocery store right next to us. They buy gas at more than $3 a gallon.
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They are school custodians and jailers, car salesmen and nurses, machinists and backhoe operators. They are train engineers and plumbers, brick masons and carpenters, supply clerks and power company linemen.
They are us, only better.
Because every single one of them volunteered for duty in the most dangerous place in the world, doing the most dangerous job imaginable.
Now it is up to the rest of us to make sure that those who have given years of their lives to their country – who missed all those holidays and family birthdays and anniversaries – get something back from us.
The best thing we can provide is support and love.
The next best thing for some of the younger soldiers who left a crummy economy to go fight a war and came back to a civilian life without a job, is for employers to seek them out and offer them something.
Talk about your resume.
Skills: Able to withstand bombs and bullets under extreme pressure as a team player. Does not fold when enemy tries to kill him and coworkers. Willing to leave for nine months to work in desert and cold mountains.
Since the 178th is a command unit, it included dozens of sergeants, staff sergeants, first sergeants and warrant officers. In the military these soldiers are called “non-commissioned officers.”
It is those non-coms who carry out the orders of generals and politicians. They lead by example, in the cold and heat, doing the work right next to the soldier.
Non-coms lead squads of soldiers, six or eight or 12, on missions that last a week or a month. They make sure 20-year-old privates come home alive. They carry out orders to go take that bomb off a road, by walking right up to that bomb themselves.
Non-coms are the toughest, strongest soldiers on earth.
Any employer should be thrilled to hire a soldier from the 178th to work in any business, doing anything that needs doing, because all of them have shown they lead and do not quit.
Some were in the Army National Guard before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, so they ended up being deployed two, three, four times to Iraq or Afghanistan or both.
Others, younger, joined afterward, knowing full well that enlisting meant going to war and leaving families – but it meant good pay, combat pay and hazardous duty pay and separation pay.
Some joined for the college benefits on the GI Bill.
The command sergeant major for this unit, Joe Medlin, worked as an investigator and office manager for the York County Public Defender’s Office for more than a decade before being appointed York County’s Veterans Service Officer before he left on deployment.
Medlin came home Friday from his second deployment and hugged his own family. In dozens of emails and phone calls during deployment, Medlin made sure the veterans office operated and helped thousands of others.
He hadn’t even left the parking lot of the homecoming in Columbia before he was on the phone, making sure that the veterans office in Rock Hill was helping a soldier from another unit who was wounded in Afghanistan last week.
He also was making sure that any of his 178th soldiers who needed anything as early as Monday got it.
“Every soldier deserves the best we can give them,” Medlin said as he was driving home to his normal life Friday afternoon. “They earned everything. York County can be so proud of all of them.”
That is the type of person who makes up this 178th combat engineer battalion.
The battalion’s units at armories in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Chester and Lancaster have sent hundreds of men and women to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 11 years.
The reason these units were deployed, repeatedly, is simple: Their soldiers were the best. Each time in war they were so good, so dedicated, that the big shot generals and brass at the Pentagon couldn’t wait to send them again.
Now that the wars are just about over, those brave people need the rest of us.
In Texas, between finishing in Afghanistan and coming home, all these soldiers received medical and dental and psychological exams to make sure each was ready to go back to regular life. Those who do not have jobs waiting also received help in using their skills to find work.
The brutal reality is that there are some in the unit who do not have jobs to go back to.
The commander of the unit, Lt. Col. Corol Dobson, so proud of all these men and women when they worked for him in the toughest jobs in the world, now wants them to find that same job satisfaction in the civilian workplace.
“They earned it,” Dobson said after hugging his own family Friday. “They did everything asked of them. More.”
Politicians have sponsored some actions to give veterans coming back from wars special access to civilian jobs. But the best action is always the action of communities.
The construction economy has rebounded locally. Thousands of homes are planned. Businesses are hiring again.
York County has never needed any government program to take care of its soldiers. It just needed those who would seek out these soldiers and give them the chance in civilian life.
In the parking lot after Friday’s homecoming in Columbia, after the soldiers greeted families, many of the soldiers lingered a few minutes. They hugged each other. They introduced spouses and kids to the men and women who “had my back” in Afghanistan.
Grown men who had fought with machine guns and removed bombs from roads and bridges and schools cried and thanked each other.
We now must thank them with more than banners and signs.
We must thank them with opportunities.