Rock Hill to officially welcome home National Guard soldiers who served in Afghanistan

09/07/2013 9:33 PM

09/08/2013 11:39 PM

The Winthrop Coliseum should be packed at 10 a.m. Sunday.

No ball game. No graduation. Something far more important.

On this day, York County will honor the living heroes among us – and those who didn’t come home.

The ceremony will be a homecoming for the soldiers of Rock Hill’s Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers, the 161 soldiers who came home in May after again doing their duty in Afghanistan.

For nine months, these men and women, all volunteers, lived in steel huts, enduring cold and heat. They walked through snow and dirt to a shower or toilet. Some spent weeks in hovels trying to stay alive and save others by clearing remote roads of bombs.

Those bombs – if not found by these construction workers and mechanics and salesmen and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives who left home to do it – would maim and kill.

The soldiers are black and white, Hispanic and Catawba Indian. One is a Muslim. They look just like America and all love America. They spent part of their lives away from their families so the rest of us could laugh and hug and drink big cold beers without worry of bombs blowing up here in America.

Explosions in America are why these people, whose kids go to school with our kids, who work with us and go to church with us, went to Afghanistan – and Iraq before that. It all started 12 years ago Wednesday on Sept. 11, 2001.

Planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon; 343 firefighters, 23 cops, 37 port authority officers and 2,346 civilians died. Wars started soon afterward, and heroic troops started dying.

Thousands of them.

Tens of thousands came home wounded, without arms or legs or parts of their brains.

From York and Chester and Lancaster counties alone, hundreds of National Guard and Reserve troops went to war. Some have been deployed as many as four times. Active duty troops went, too.

Some did not hear cheers when they came home. They came home to be buried.

Paul Neff and Pat Leach, Kenneth James Butler and T.J. Dudley, all of York County, died in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Logan Tinsley and Zandra Worthy-Walker of Chester County died in those wars.

Peter Vega, a firefighter from Brooklyn whose parents live in Rock Hill, died that day in 2001, trying to save others.

Mario Santoro, a paramedic in New York whose parents live in Tega Cay, died holding onto a tiny child he was trying to rush to safety.

Church on a Sunday morning is important to people. If there is ever a day that you want to try a new church, just for once, let it be this morning.

Better yet, bring the whole church. Bring the black people singing and the white people singing and the Hispanic people singing. Bring the Catholics and the Baptists and the Presbyterians and the Muslims. Bring those who seek and have not found.

Ask your pastor to just forget the planned service and have everybody go to Winthrop Coliseum instead and hold church together, right there.

Sing loud and strong. Hug people who lived for you and the survivors of those who died for you.

Let it be the day that truly unites us all.

Go to the Winthrop Coliseum where so many dreams of life after graduation have hatched, so many cheers for great teams screamed into the sky.

Go see the people who went to the places, Afghanistan, Iraq, where your prayers had to travel 12,000 miles to reach.

Go there and say a prayer for those dead soldiers and Marines from York and Chester counties whose names are on marble slabs.

Fill the place, and remember.

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