More than 160 Army National Guard soldiers based at the Rock Hill armory will deploy to Afghanistan this summer, military officials confirmed Tuesday.
The nine-month deployment, which includes almost all of the officers and top brass of the unit – as well as its vehicles, equipment and maintenance staff – comes during some of the most difficult political and military tensions of the decade-long war.
A U.S. Army sergeant was accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday, and last month American soldiers burned Muslim holy books and other Islamic texts. Both incidents prompted widespread civilian unrest in Afghanistan and concern for the safety of soldiers on active duty there.
The area soldiers are part of the 178th Combat Engineer Battalion based in Rock Hill, which includes armories in Fort Mill, Clover, Lancaster and Chester.
They will primarily have construction duties, said Lt. Col. Coral Dobson, the commanding officer for the Rock Hill unit. Both the Forward Support Company and the Headquarters Support Company based in Rock Hill are being deployed, he said.
“We will be helping with higher headquarters of command and control and the support pieces underneath,” said Dobson, who, like most of the men who will be deploying, is already a veteran of an Afghanistan tour.
The troops will head to a mobilization site within the next couple of months, Dobson said, and there should be a window for a community send-off before the unit leaves for Afghanistan – as has happened when all other area soldiers deployed from armories.
“York County has always been there for us, supporting us and our missions, just as we are there for our country when called,” Dobson said.
Previous deployments were for a year, but on Jan. 1, the Army shortened deployments to nine months. While that means a shorter separation for soldiers from families, it does take away any hope for a break between the mobilization, likely in May, and departure for Afghanistan a couple of months later.
Area armories have sent soldiers to active duty since immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Rock Hill and Fort Mill Army National Guard soldiers went to Iraq in 2003-04, then twice to Afghanistan. The last deployment ended in October 2010. Soldiers from Lancaster have been sent to Iraq, and soldiers from Chester have served in Kosovo.
Many soldiers will be on their second, third or even fourth deployments. The area units have received many decorations and commendations through the years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Through all deployments, the unit has had just one combat death – Shawn Hill, a soldier from Spartanburg County.
It is unclear if the local soldiers will have any route clearance duties, Dobson said. Route clearance, the most dangerous duty in Afghanistan, was one of the main duties the last two tours for area soldiers, along with training of the Afghan army and police.
However, the commanders of the unit say the 178th soldiers can, and will, handle any mission given to them.
“The Soldiers of the 178th Engineer Battalion have been training extremely hard,” said Joe Medlin, command sergeant major for the battalion, who is also being sent to Afghanistan. “Many have deployed before and have combat experience.
“I am very proud of each one of these soldiers and have absolute confidence that they can handle any mission assigned to them with the utmost professionalism and dedication.”
Family Readiness Groups for the units already are planning for a March 31 meeting with spouses, parents and children of soldiers, to make sure that all needs are met while the soldiers are on active duty, said Anne Cash, one of the groups’ leaders. The meeting will be from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Rock Hill armory, on Museum Road just off S.C. 161.
“It is our obligation, our duty, to make sure that each family has all that it needs while these brave men and women are in Afghanistan,” Cash said. “They don’t forget us. We sure will never forget them.”