Soldiers return home

ALLENDALE -- The "Waterdawgs" of the S.C. National Guard's 266th Quartermaster Detachment unit took 16 soldiers to war last year. Friday, all 16 returned home safely, no small victory in the Iraq war.

"It's great to be home!" yelled the unit's commander, 1st Sgt. Ronnie Jackson of Allendale. "We took over from a mission of 50 men, and sometimes we didn't know how we were going to make it. I'm glad to be home."

Allendale bears the impact of the war in Iraq like other small towns in South Carolina, where it is easy to run into townsfolk who have a family member serving in the military.

The 16 members of the 266th took over and carried out three water missions without disruption to service, Jackson said, producing more than 20 million gallons of clean drinking water for the U.S. infantry.

The small unit manned three operations bases at Camp Ramadi, Camp Corregidor and Camp Habbaniyah in Iraq's western Al Anbar Province.

The "Waterdawgs" marched into their hometown armory on a red carpet, a sure sign they were home again, said Sgt. Latoya Roberts of North Augusta.

"It was a long journey -- a real experience," said Roberts, a youth counselor who also served in Kuwait in 2003. "It's a different world over there."

The threat of incoming mortars targeting the water purification bases, the danger of improvised explosive devices and the constant cry of sirens left soldiers on edge about "what's going to get you," said Roberts, who returned home to her 8-year-old son, Jaquavian Kelly.

After a year, Roberts said, her son is "taller and smarter" than when she left.

Now, Roberts said, they will take one day at a time to put their lives back together.

Sgt. Daryl White deployed last year on his daughter Kennedi's first day of kindergarten, said Kristie White, his wife. His absence left a void.

"The two of them are extremely close," Kristie White said. "She goes everywhere with him. It's been hard."

On Friday, 6-year-old Kennedi pranced around her dad waving an American flag.

"She's like a growth on my hip," Daryl White said, gesturing to convey his relationship with his daughter. "I'm glad I came back alive. It was touch and go. There were three different (bases), and we were at the worst one at the time."

Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, a decorated Vietnam veteran who was on hand to welcome the returning troops, said Allendale has been "taking a licking" in the eyes of the world, especially when the topic is the county's troubled school system.

The town must do better for itself, Hosey said, and "this is a positive."

The Allendale National Guard has been called on regularly in support of the war effort, Hosey said. "I feel we should be recognized."

Positive recognition could be a catalyst the town needs to help begin an economic and cultural turnaround, Hosey said. Like other small, rural towns across the state with predominantly black populations, Allendale has perennially high unemployment and struggling schools.

As for the future of the war, 1st Sgt. Jackson, a 57-year-old parole officer, said the increase in troops in Iraq is making a difference.

"Right now, we're seeing less IEDs, less mortar attacks. In the past four months, it just ceased. The question is, can we hold it."

Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398.