S.C. Guardsmen celebrate Easter in Afghanistan

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- Easter Sunday was just another day at the office for S.C. National Guard troops here.

Convoys rolled out of the gate, watchtowers were manned, and patients were cared for at the base clinic.

"I didn't even think about it until I walked into the chow hall and saw the decorations," said Sgt. Natalia Levesque, a medic from Greenville. "Then, it hit me: 'Oh, yeah, it's Easter.'"

Levesque is one of several dozen troops of the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team stationed at Camp Lightning.

Easter was yet another holiday the troops have missed celebrating at home since they arrived here in May.

"It's a little difficult," said Spc. Grice Jacobs II of Columbia. "I guess you put on your best uniform instead of your best suit for church."

Around this base in Paktia Province in southeastern Afghanistan only the chow hall was decorated for Easter.

A "Happy Easter" banner hung over the serving area, and cardboard cutouts of bunnies, chicks and Easter baskets were taped to the walls. Solid chocolate eggs wrapped in foil and small packages of jellybeans covered the tables.

The Easter dinner menu included ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, asparagus, baked macaroni and cheese, and cake.

Jacobs started the holiday by attending a sunrise service at the base chapel with 30 service members and civilian employees.

Celebrating the holiest day on the Christian calendar in a Muslim country was not lost on Chaplain Frank Rupnik, a Navy reservist and Presbyterian minister from Kings Island, Ohio.

"We're definitely a minority," said Rupnik, a lieutenant. "If they (Afghans) convert to Christianity, under Islamic law, that's punishable by death."

To many of the S.C. soldiers, the holiday is a time for family get-togethers, buying Easter outfits for the children and putting out baskets filled with candy and painted eggs.

"It's just one more sacrifice that we have to make," said Capt. Brandon Pitcher of Summerville, commander of Alpha Company, the security force unit.

Second Lt. Leslie Madron said she tries not to think about the holidays and family reunions she's missing back home in Florence.

"I just try to stay busy," said Madron, who was poring over paperwork while taking a break from the office.

At the camp's front gate, troops watched over a steady parade of trucks and humvees, as well as Afghans who work on the base.

Because the camp is open seven days a week, you can't tell the difference between a Monday and Sunday.

"This is something we do every day," said Spc. Carl Rogers, of Clover. "We check people, we check vehicles; we make sure nobody tries to take our base.

"It doesn't even occur to me that it's a holiday."

Jacobs noted this is the second consecutive Easter troops of the 218th have spent away from home. Last Easter, the soldiers were at Camp Shelby, Miss., training for the Afghanistan mission.

But this Easter also is the last holiday the troops are gone from home -- at least, until their next deployment.

In a few weeks, soldiers start heading back to South Carolina as the brigade wraps up a yearlong mission.

Knowing they're "short" on how much time they have left in Afghanistan will be a challenge for soldiers.

"They say the last two months are the longest of your life," said Sgt. Lora Pate of McColl.