A year to the day — and almost to the minute — after friends and family and members of the Effingham County sent Alpha Battery off to Afghanistan, they gave those same soldiers a warm welcome home from their combat mission.
The 85 soldiers of the Springfield-based National Guard unit received an official welcome home Wednesday morning.
“It’s a great honor to have as many people come together like this in this fashion,” Capt. Patrick Grover, the battery commander. “You can be very proud of your brothers and sons of the missions they’ve done in Afghanistan.”
Family members have waited patiently and anxiously for their loved ones to return. As the soldiers marched from Springfield City Hall to the front of the county administrative complex, Eva Mae Goldwire clutched the picture of her two sons, Sgt. Alex Manior and Staff Sgt. Taurus Young.
“It’s a blessing,” she said. “It’s a blessing just to have them home.”
Cheryl Searles’ husband Sgt. 1st Class Tom Searles returned a little earlier than his batterymates, since his father had fallen very ill.
“Oh, wonderful,” she said of her husband’s and the unit’s return. “There are no words to describe it.”
Sgt. 1st Class Searles has been in the service for 21 1/2 years, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and his wife is looking forward to his impending retirement.
“We’re ready to start the next chapter in our lives,” she said.
County Commissioner Reggie Loper noted he joined the Springfield National Guard unit 54 years ago and joined the regular Army after his graduation from high school.
“Things have really changed over the years,” he said. “Our Guard units leave their families at home for places we can’t pronounce and can’t find on a map. The sacrifices these brave men of Alpha Battery make to keep us safe is far and above any expression of thanks we can offer them. You are truly heroes.”
In his prayer, Springfield United Methodist Church associate pastor Ty LaValley, a retired Sgt. 1st Class who served a tour of duty in Iraq, thanked God for looking after the battery.
“You traveled with this brave group of soldiers when they left their homes to advance the cause of freedom,” he said. “You knew for a season in time they were to be a people of war on a mission to stamp out oppression. They came to know the people of Afghanistan as partners in the cause. They experienced the enemy as a determined foe. Thank You for bringing them home safely.”
LaValley also offered his gratitude for the solace provided to the soldiers and their families more than 7,000 miles away during the year-long separation.
“Thank You for sustaining the troops when loneliness and fear were as close as their very next breath,” he said. “Thank You for comforting them when the calendar appeared to stand still.”
A wide range of missions
Their missions in Afghanistan ranged from providing security at a couple of forward operating bases to security for VIPs to their main task, training and mentoring 2,500 Afghan security personnel. The training of the Afghan National Police also came at a pivotal time — the Afghan national elections.
“It was probably the most important time frame in Kabul over the last eight years,” Grover said. “We got to be a part of that, and it was something special.”
It was also dangerous. The elections brought forth repeated insurgent attempts to disrupt the process, which began in August and was to conclude with a November runoff. But President Hamid Karzai’s opponent dropped out less than a week before the November vote.
“It was also turbulent because there were a lot of bombs,” Capt. Grover said. “It was pretty interesting. They accomplished every mission they were tasked, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the support of our (family readiness group).”
Just as their sendoff day 365 days prior, it was a cold, raw morning in Springfield. And the reception for the 85 troops of Alpha Battery was equally as fervent.
“It feels a lot like when we left. It was very cold,” Grover said. “This community is very grateful and very open. When you come home, it makes your return a lot easier with the kind of reception we had here. On the bus ride, they were running out of the banks with their flags — it was awesome.”
Back on the homefront
Cheryl Searles was appreciative of the support of the troops shown by the community — and grateful for their safe return. The battery had one soldier injured, and he is recovering,
“It makes you very proud to be an American,” she said. “And here we are a year later, welcoming them back at 100 percent strength, and we’re thankful for that.”
Searles said she worried more during this deployment because she knew more. Communication between the home front and the front lines was improved greatly from the 2005-06 deployment to Iraq to the mission in Afghanistan.
“The communication was better,” she said, “but the worry was deeper. They were fighting a different war.”
Goldwire was at Fort Stewart at 4 a.m. the morning her sons came home. She was heartened by the turnout on the chilly Wednesday morning to welcome the troops back to Effingham.
“We are a small community, but we bond together,” she said. “Everybody is very supportive. “But we got together and prayed. We thank God for them being home safe.
“I’m so glad they’re home.”