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Friday, May 31, was a very special day for the family members of the Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineer Battalion, as the group returned home from Afghanistan after a 10-month deployment.
The unit, now based in Rock Hill, has about 160 members, and of that number, about 10 are Lancaster residents. Denise Lloyd is mother to one of those Lancaster members, Spc. David Hall, and was on hand at the Eagle Aviation Hangar at Columbia Metropolitan Airport to welcome her son home. Video footage of the event includes the deafening roar of cheers, clapping and whistles from family members and friends as the battalion entered the hangar.
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my chest,” Lloyd said. “And I didn’t realize what a heavy weight it had been until it was gone. I’ve been so worried and stressed since he’s been gone, and having him back, it’s almost like giving birth to him again. The scene at the airport was very emotional, very moving and when they got off the plane, there was still about five or 10 minutes before they were actually released to the families. It was sort of nerve wracking, feeling like he was so close yet still so far away. I was the first one to get a big hug, though. We are definitely glad to have him back.”
Lloyd, who owns Balloon Express, said between 12 and 15 family members were at the airport to greet her son, and that on Saturday a larger celebration was held at her home to welcome Hall back.
“We probably had anywhere from 50 to 75 people at the party,” she said. “It was a wonderful time.”
Hall, 22, said this was his first deployment, and he was glad to be back in the USA.
“There really was an element of culture shock,” he said. “The necessities – or what we consider the necessities – of life are very different over there. We definitely take for granted what we have here. It was pretty strenuous, getting used to the difference, for the first month or so.”
Hall said there were towns in the area of Afghanistan where the battalion was deployed, and the differences in the way of life between here and there were startling.
“The houses there are built out of mud and dirt and it’s amazing that they stand,” he said. “And the people that live in these towns generally never travel any farther than a 50-mile radius from it. They live and die in the same place with no real knowledge of anything else outside of that town.”
Hall said the main task of the 30-member unit he was a part of was to provide escort services.
“I was a gunner on a gun truck, and we were in a convoy at least every other day,” he said. “We provided security for anything involving an escort. There were quite a few sketchy moments, but there always seemed to be a greater force at work that caused us to be able to come out of it unscathed, and I’m thankful for that. I don’t want to say this was an easy deployment, but at the same time it wasn’t a hard one. It was much better than it could’ve been.”
Hall is currently taking online classes at Grantham University, a fully-accredited college designed for military members who work full time and can’t participate in a classroom setting. He works at Haile Gold Mine when not on active duty, and is working toward a business management degree.
“I want to own my own business someday, like my mom,” he said. “As far as any more deployments, well, there will always be a conflict that needs us, a place we will need to go. It’s hard to say what may happen from here.”
Hall said the welcome home party on Saturday was a “great experience” that he enjoyed very much.
“It was so nice to just be sitting around with the hog cooking and having everyone there,” he said. “There were even people I had never met before who came by to welcome me home. It was really, really nice.”
Bridget Smith welcomed back both her son Thomas and husband Anthony, who came home to big surprises.
“For my husband, the surprise was the new granddaughter who was born on Feb. 6,” she said. “And for my son, his wife got them a new house and I have to tell you, he was totally shocked. He had no idea. He was ecstatic. It was kind of hard keeping it from him, because we did need to get some information from him, but we said we needed it because she was getting a car.”
Smith said this is the pair’s second deployment, having gone overseas the first time in 2010.
“It actually made me feel better to know that they were over there together,” she said. “And this time, between the new baby and helping my daughter-in-law get this house, there was enough going on that it kept me busy, kept me from worrying so much. But we are all definitely glad to have them back.”
The 178th left South Carolina last August after going on active duty in May 2012. Training for the deployment took place at Fort Jackson in Columbia, Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Fort Bliss, Texas.
The primary purpose of the battalion is usually engineering support to construction and deconstruction engineer units already on the ground. They have also taken part in route clearance, which involves checking for roadside bombs. About 65 percent of the battalion has been deployed at least once before this last deployment to the Afghan region.