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50 SC Guardsmen to help Northeast with flood cleanup

For a 27-year-old tough guy named Michael Boone, the greatest thing about Vermont is it's not Afghanistan.

Boone just came back from Afghanistan a few months ago and today heads to Vermont, along with 50 other S.C. Army National Guard soldiers who will help clean up from recent floods.

"Not nearly as hot, and there aren't any snipers," said Boone, an Army National Guard specialist from Lancaster. "I'll take Vermont."

Vermont was declared a federal disaster area after rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused flooding, mudslides, and billions of dollars in damage. Some rural areas remain unreachable. The soldiers will be gone three weeks - maybe more.

Of the 50 soldiers dispatched from South Carolina, half are from armories in Lancaster, Chester, and Clover - part of the Rock Hill-based 178th engineer battalion. Most of the soldiers to be deployed to Vermont are combat veterans from Afghanistan, Iraq or both.

"We will help them up there any way we can," said Staff Sgt. Isaac Holmes, 28, who will be in charge of the unit after just returning from Afghanistan late last year following a tour in Iraq. "Roads need to be cleared. Debris needs to be picked up."

Some of Vermont's National Guard soldiers are on deployment in Afghanistan, so the federal government had to look elsewhere for the resources to handle the storm's clean-up.

The 25 Rock Hill-area soldiers will take nine dump trucks from the Lancaster-based 1782nd Engineer Company and the Chester-based 172nd Transportation Platoon aboard flatbed haulers, then fan out wherever the need is greatest.

The troops being sent locally and from another S.C. National Guard base are all experienced in road construction and handling heavy equipment. Those in civilian jobs had to get leaves of absence to go. Federal law requires employers to give guardsmen and reservists who are deployed time off without job or benefit losses.

"In Iraq, we did whatever we needed to do," Sgt. Howard Martin said, "and that's what we will do in Vermont."

Not all of the guardsmen have been deployed before.

Sgt. Wayne Maury of Rock Hill, leaving for his first deployment, said guardsmen have to help when and where they can.

Another veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Spc. Gary Miles, said the deployment shows the guard will help right here in America and the younger soldiers can help in a mission important here at home.

Since the 9/11 attacks a decade ago, more than 600 National Guard soldiers from all the area armories under the umbrella of the 178th Battalion have been deployed to combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo - plus homeland security missions throughout this country.

Soldiers from the 178th have built schools and roads in Iraq and Afghanistan, trained Iraqi and Afghan police and Army forces, and worked convoy security, police details and - most recently - bomb removal.

Some of the tasks have been the most dangerous in the wars. One soldier, Shawn Hill from near Spartanburg, was killed in action in 2008. Dozens of 178th soldiers have been awarded Bronze Stars and other combat medals for valor and heroism.

Col. Coral Dobson, the 178th commanding officer and an Afghanistan veteran, said the flood deployment is another example of how his soldiers will do whatever job they are asked to do.

Vermont will not be dangerous like Afghanistan or Iraq, he said, but it is important.

"These soldiers don't ask why; they just find out where and go," Dobson said.

Over the past few days, maintenance guardsmen from Rock Hill's motor pool have made sure all nine trucks were ready for the trip.

The deployment allows for 15 days of work and four travel days, but it could be extended, said Sgt. Michael Beckham, an Iraq veteran and full-time guardsman who is in charge of the Lancaster armory during normal periods.

"These guys all understand that this is going to be a short deployment but a lot of work," Beckham said. "These are good soldiers. They will work hard and help people who need a hand."

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