Andrew Dys

Rock Hill National Guard soldiers in Afghanistan preparing to come home

For the wives and daughters, the mommas and daddies, the sons and even a few husbands, the wait for a soldier’s return home from Afghanistan is almost over.

The 161 soldiers from Rock Hill’s Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineer Battalion – in Afghanistan since August clearing roads of bombs – are set to leave Afghanistan around May 8, with a homecoming to South Carolina soon afterward.

The soldiers have been doing the dirty work of convoy security and bomb defusing, but in York, Chester and Lancaster counties, every family of those soldiers has been deployed, too.

Spouses have done double duty, kids have gone through holidays and birthdays without a parent.

“It has been a long deployment, and all of us are waiting right now for something that is so close you can almost touch it,” said Leanne Pressley, the wife of soldier Colin Pressley and a leader in the support group that has helped families get through the months of worry.

“ ‘Army Wives’ is a show on TV. Real Army wives are real people. We worry and we worry some more and we try to get through this so that we can all be families again soon,” she said.

For almost half of the unit, this is their second or third deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq. The 178th, which was the command for Task Force Prowler based in Sharana in rugged eastern Afghanistan, has not had any soldiers killed in action during this deployment.

However, four soldiers – three from New York, and one from New Mexico – who were in units working with the 178th have been killed.

Every one of those families has longed for this deployment, so close to the end of the war in Afghanistan, to end.

“The days take forever,” Pressley said.

The troops will return to Fort Bliss in Texas, where they will undergo up to two weeks of demobilization – medical and psychological examinations, debriefings and counseling to help them reintegrate with their families and return to their civilian careers.

National Guard soldiers do not go back to military bases after deployment. They go back to jobs in schools and banks and factories.

But some don’t have jobs to go back to, and part of the counseling is aimed at helping soldiers who were unemployed when they were deployed find immediate employment after coming back.

That workforce component was added a few years ago by the Pentagon when it became clear that many soldiers needed to be able to take the skills and experience gained during war into the job market, said Lt. Paul Reed, who has run the Rock Hill armory while most of the soldiers have been gone.

Wives such as Leanne Pressley hope area employers who need summer or longer-term help will look at these area soldiers as the type of hard-working potential employees who have proven they can follow orders, complete tasks, and do it all under the most difficult circumstances.

“Every one of these soldiers has done a duty in Afghanistan that I would think any employer would say was heroic,” Pressley said. “All have proved to be dependable, trustworthy and loyal.”

Although the unit is from Rock Hill, there will not be an immediate ceremony in Rock Hill to welcome all of them home. A month or so after returning, a public ceremony will be held in Rock Hill to officially thank the soldiers.

After the soldiers finish at Fort Bliss, the unit will fly to Columbia, where families can greet them. The date will not be known until after the unit returns to Texas, but it is expected to be in late May.

The Family Readiness Group for the 178th, run by volunteers and crucial the past year in assisting families with everything from child care to emergencies, is planning to welcome home the soldiers at the Columbia airport.

The families already have started making banners and more. There will be food, signs, and most importantly, hugs and kisses and thanks.

“These soldiers have done a great service to their country, at great cost to their own families,” said Anne Cash, who runs the Family Readiness Group. “This community has always supported its soldiers, and we will again when they come home.

“Rock Hill, York County, this entire area, can be very proud of these people who have risked their own safety to serve.”

Since August, several schools, community and civic groups, churches and individuals have donated, sent care packages, more..

Soldiers’ families are urging anyone who wants to be a part of a homecoming to do it in a way that each soldier might find uplifting.

Neighborhoods where soldiers’ live are encouraged to fly American flags and tie yellow ribbons on trees and utility poles. If a school has a soldier parent, teachers and students can make signs to be taken to the Columbia airport. A church can dedicate a service to a soldier and family.

Any tribute will work, Pressley and Cash said.

“In my neighborhood, people are already planning for flags, ribbons, the works,” Pressley said. “That’s what we can all do for these soldiers.

“We can show them that when York County sends soldiers to war, we know how to welcome them home.”