S.C. Guard members savor Fourth on home soil

COLUMBIA -- A nearly full moon lit the Afghan sky as a rocket screamed over Lt. Tony Hedrick's hut and slammed into a building next to his base.

Hedrick checked his watch. It was 1:30 a.m., about the time Taliban fighters usually launched attacks.

The date was more remarkable.

It was July 4, 2007.

Today, Hedrick and more than 1,000 fellow S.C. National Guard soldiers are back home from Afghanistan. They won't have to worry about taking cover from rocket attacks.

Instead, they'll enjoy the Fourth of July with family and friends, grilling hamburgers and maybe taking in a public fireworks show.

"My mom and her husband plan to come by," said Hedrick, who this week moved to Columbia from Florence. "We might go to Fort Jackson and catch that show, and just hang out."

Hedrick and some 1,500 members of the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team have been home about two months after a year in Afghanistan.

Another 120 brigade soldiers, who volunteered to extend their tours in either Afghanistan or Iraq, will spend their second In-dependence Day overseas.

For the troops who are home, there is no comparison to how they marked the holiday a year ago.

Chaplain Roy Butler, for instance, spent part of last July Fourth with British soldiers at a desert base in southern Afghanistan.

The night before, Butler, of Columbia, had hoped to catch a plane back to his base at Kandahar Airfield. But the C-130 transport plane encountered mechanical problems in flight and went to another base for repairs.

When a British soldier announced the news to a tent packed with troops, Butler noticed it was just past midnight on July 4.

"You did this on purpose," Butler said, kidding the Brit.

"Happy Independence Day," the British soldier cracked.

This Fourth of July, Butler, a lieutenant colonel in the Guard, will spend the day with his wife and two children.

Later, they will be at a friend's house for a cookout, said Butler, who is pastor at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Columbia in civilian life.

"We'll kick up our heels and kind of relax," Butler said.

A year ago, Lt. Col. John Bozard said, he learned that as long as you are around Americans, you don't have to be in the United States to enjoy the Fourth.

Last year, Bozard, of Lexington, was at Manas Air Base, waiting to catch a military transport to Afghanistan. Manas is a small base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan that is used by U.S. and coalition air forces.

For that Fourth, U.S. personnel paraded around the foreign base in golf carts, Bozard said. One even dressed up as Santa Claus, Bozard said.

"It made me realize that you don't have to be in America to celebrate July Fourth," Bozard said. "You can do it in a place like Manas."

At bases such as Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan, troops and civilian workers enjoyed cookouts that featured hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecued ribs. The chow hall was decorated with red, white and blue bunting, and workers put red and blue covers on the dining tables.

However, Master Sgt. Denise Washington sat on the chapel porch to eat dinner with fellow soldiers. In between her duties, Washington also made a call home to her family in Newberry.

"They let me know how much they missed me," Washington said. "But they understood we had a mission to accomplish."

Today, Washington, her children and husband plan to spend the day with her two sisters and their families.

In the Forest Acres neighborhood where Maj. Tim Wood lives, U.S. flags can be seen waving at many homes.

Wood, who was at Camp Phoenix last July 4, said flying the flags has become a neighborhood tradition since Sept. 11.

Tonight, neighbors will set off fireworks.

"Of course, we couldn't do fireworks at (Camp) Phoenix," Wood said. "Everybody would head to the bunker when they heard a pop."

Although there is plenty of fun associated with the Fourth, Hedrick said it's also a solemn holiday for soldiers.

His platoon, stationed in Khost Province along the lawless Pakistan border a year ago, lost one soldier. A handful were wounded.

The fallen soldier, Sgt. Shawn Hill, of Wellford, is one of 13 South Carolinians who have died in Afghanistan.

"I've been there and seen my guys bleed, and make the ultimate sacrifice," Hedrick said.

"I feel we own one of those red stripes on the flag."