Andrew Dys

Wait finally over for families of guard soldiers returning from Afghanistan

No longer will 3-year-old Danny Kimbrell think his father lives and sleeps inside the screen of an iPad.

His brothers – Michael, 9, and Ricky, 10 – will not have to play football or dance hip-hop at a recital without Dad there to cheer the loudest.

Sixteen-year-old sister Heather will make no more high school art projects about her father being in a war.

Big brother Johnny, who had to be the man of the house for nine months, finally will get a chance to be 19.

And the wife and mother who held it all together – the glue named Cindy Kimbrell – will get her husband back from Afghanistan.

Finally, Sgt. Brad Kimbrell comes home Friday.

“We get our family together again,” Cindy Kimbrell said. “We just can’t wait. I mean it – we are done waiting. We just want him home.”

The Kimbrell family is not alone.

The 161 soldiers of the Army National Guard’s 178th Combat Engineers, based in Rock Hill, have been gone since July.

They are expected to arrive in Columbia from Fort Bliss, Texas, Friday afternoon. They were in Afghanistan from August until early this month, handling construction, bomb clearance and route security duties that are some of the most dangerous and demanding jobs in the military.

The soldiers spent the last two weeks in Texas going through demobilization interviews, medical testing and other requirements that come at the end of deployment.

The families had demands, too, in trying to make it through.

For the Kimbrells, the deployment was the third in seven years – twice to Afghanistan, once to Iraq.

“My dad’s a soldier and that is what he does,” said Ricky Kimbrell, all boy at age 10, a football player, dancer, big brother, little brother and son. “I just want him to come home.”

The classmates and staff at Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School have supported Ricky and 9-year-old Michael all year. So have the people at Rock Hill High School, where Heather is in the 10th grade.

While classmates made art projects about whatever dreams they might have, Heather created a huge painted banner that will welcome her father home from Afghanistan.

Her dream is that he would not be hurt or worse.

The littlest, Danny, thinks his father sleeps inside the tablet computer, through which he has chatted with his father over the past nine months.

“It is not easy to tell a little boy who is 3 years old why his daddy isn’t here to tuck him in at night,” Cindy Kimbrell said.

In so many families, similar situations have played out over the past months, and not just with missing fathers. More than a dozen of the soldiers are women.

Whichever parent was gone, kids played band concerts without two parents to yell and clap. Christmas gifts were opened without the Santa.

On the Kimbrells’ front door hangs a Christmas wreath made from an old uniform with Sgt. Kimbrell’s name on it. It will not come down until he walks through the door.

Spouses at home did the work of two people, paid bills late at night and dragged themselves to bed for sleepless, lonely nights.

Cindy Kimbrell has taken kids to dance and sports, cooked and shopped, cleaned and wiped tears for a houseful. Without a break.

“We love each other, and we got through this deployment because everybody pitched in,” she said. “It takes a family with love in it to make it through the hard times.”

More than half of the soldiers in the 178th were on a second, third or fourth deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq or both.

Almost all of these National Guard soldiers were civilians deployed to active duty. They left warehouses and construction jobs, sales jobs and office jobs. All put on the uniform and left and did not complain once.

Every family cried as they watched them go.

Just this week, on Memorial Day, President Barack Obama urged Americans not to forget those who fought these wars, and those who were left behind.

The families of the 178th need no politician to tell them to remember what wars really do. War was with them each day of their lives.

These 178th soldiers and families are the toughest and best of people among us. Working class families. Black, white and Hispanic. Of several religions and nationalities.

All of them wore the same uniform of the United States Army with the American flag on it.

The families have their flags, too. The flags did not yield to rain or snow or sleet or sun.

The Kimbrell home is in the old Industrial Mill neighborhood of Rock Hill, a house with a concrete porch and brick pillars and a fence with dogs in the back and a huge American flag on a flagpole out front.

“Those kids, that family, they have just been great while their daddy was gone,” said next-door neighbor Joey Love, who like many neighbors looked out for the Kimbrells. “They are great people. Now he comes home.”

From the Kimbrell house and 160 other homes around York County, families sent a soldier off to a place where death happened almost every day. Where there were bombs and bullets instead of bread and biscuits.

Each family lived in silent fear each night about news from Afghanistan.

Today, the fear ends.

On Saturday, all the Kimbrell kids have a dance recital and a certain soldier will wear regular clothes and clap until his palms hurt.

He will hold hands with his wife and she will lay her head on his shoulder.

The war – in Afghanistan and Rock Hill – will finally be over.