POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Never mind the cold. Or the rain. Or that it was almost 5 a.m. and Timothy Dickerson had been sleeping in his car for four hours in an Air Force base parking lot.
His wife, Capt. Iris Dickerson, was coming home from Afghanistan.
"I kept thinking I could hear an airplane," said Dickerson of Rock Hill. "Then, I'd realize, 'No, it's the heater in my car.'"
Despite the nap in the car, Dickerson looked sharp in gray pinstriped slacks and vest as he waited for his wife. His starched shirt was barely wrinkled and his tie was neatly tucked into the vest.
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"It's for my wife. I haven't seen her since April 4 of last year."
A year ago, more than 1,600 troops from the S.C. National Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team left the state for a 12-month tour in Afghanistan. On Monday, the first 160 soldiers started the unit's homecoming.
Their plane arrived at Pope Air Force Base, outside Fayetteville, N.C., at 4:40 a.m. after traveling for five days. About 15 members of the S.C. National Guard's top brass greeted the troops as they stepped off the airplane and marched to a hangar reserved for Army troops returning from combat.
"I can't thank you enough for the tremendous job you did for your state and your country," Maj. Gen. Stan Spears, adjutant general of the S.C. Guard and a York County native, said in a brief speech.
Dickerson was one of just five family members or friends to travel to North Carolina to be on hand when the plane arrived. Most families are waiting for their soldiers to return to their home armories in South Carolina after a three- to four-day stay at Fort Bragg, N.C., which is adjacent to the air base.
At Fort Bragg, the Guardsmen will meet with medical, legal and financial officers who will guide their transition from active-duty soldiers to traditional Guard members.
S.C. National Guard troops will continue flowing home until mid-May. Most will return to Fort Bragg for demobilization before going home to South Carolina, but some will process through Fort Riley, Kan.
A large welcome-home ceremony for the entire brigade is planned for October.
Hugs and happy faces
For those few who had family members or friends greeting the plane, the reunion was joyful. Their plane originally was scheduled to arrive at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, but it was delayed in Germany. So, the few who traveled to North Carolina had been up all night.
When Iris Dickerson, a chaplain, saw her husband, she broke into a sprint and squealed, "Hey, baby!"
The Rock Hill couple hugged and kissed.
As Iris Dickerson stepped back, she said, "Oh, my gosh. You look good. Sharp as a tack."
Time together short
The reunion between troops and families was brief. Less than an hour after landing, the troops boarded buses to barracks where they could shower and sleep before their processing began later in the day.
Still, Staff Sgt. Daniel Bird of Walterboro said it meant everything that his wife, Maryann Bird, drove four hours to see him.
"It's important for my husband to know someone is here to welcome him home," Maryann Bird said.
Krystle Good of Columbia felt the same way about being on hand to welcome back her best friend, Pfc. Edlynn Atkins of Beaufort. The two were sorority sisters at the College of Charleston, but Atkins had to leave school a semester before their graduation to serve in Afghanistan.
"I'm really proud of her," Good said.
Atkins said she couldn't begin to explain how relieved she was to be home.
"I'm happy to see a friendly face," she said.
Spc. Jack Cheung of Orangeburg was delighted to see his wife, Tonya, even though the reunion was short.
"A few minutes is better than no time at all," he said.
Spc. Randy Gibson of Camden hadn't called his wife to tell her that he was on an airplane, coming home. He planned to surprise her with the news he no longer was in Afghanistan.
But, after five days of traveling, Gibson just was ready for a shower and some sleep.
"I'm sick of airplanes," he said.