COLUMBIA The wife stood in the throng of hundreds, sweating and trying not to cry at seeing the man she so loved for the first time in almost a year.
Ann Hunter held a baby, 5-month-old Nathan Hunter, who was so hot in that airport terminal in Columbia.
Cheers and screams and yells filled the air.
“Where is he?” Ann asked, and her eyes searched for her husband.
Her eyes filled with tears. Sweat poured. A friend took the baby to air conditioning.
Ann Hunter stood alone among almost a thousand people.
Friday afternoon at the Eagle Aviation terminal at Columbia Metropolitan Airport, she was not a wife waiting for a husband to come home from a normal business trip.
This husband was coming home from nine months fighting in a war in Afghanistan, on the other side of the world.
Ann could not find Sgt. Franklin Hunter, who in those nine months in deserts and rocks and bombs and bullets had missed the birth of his son.
Sgt. Hunter had never seen little Nathan.
All around Ann, the families of the 161 soldiers of the Army National Guard’s 178th Combat Engineers from the Rock Hill armory were reuniting.
Wives grabbed husbands and planted long, smacking kisses on them – smooches straight out of the movies that lingered and were so filled with love.
Kids cried and held onto fathers almost as if the father would float away if the kid did not hold tight.
There was First Sgt. Scott Harris from McConnells, hugging the three crying daughters he had not seen in nine months.
“My beautiful, wonderful girls,” Harris said.
Standing there hugging and crying were Marena Harris and Amber Harris and the youngest, Hayle Harris, and they just cried and hugged and their daddy cried and hugged them right back.
“My dad!” said Hayle Harris. “Home. Forever.”
The girls cried and Harris cried and the war was over.
Finally, through the sea of camouflage, Sgt. Franklin Hunter walked up to his wife.
“Oh, honey!” Ann said.
And she got her kiss – and it was a beauty – and her hug, and then Franklin Hunter said, “There’s my boy!”
Ann handed Nathan to the father who had never held him. He had seen his son in pictures, sure, and during video chats on a computer. He even left a rocky outpost to watch the birth on a computer.
But here, in his hands Friday, for the first time, Franklin Hunter held his son.
“He is so beautiful,” Hunter said.
He stared at the boy – tiny, fussy and hot – and kissed him over and over on his tiny little forehead.
“My son,” he said.
Then he looked at his wife, who for five months had been a single mother, and told her, “I love you both so much. You are beautiful, too.”
Beautiful is not a word used, ever, in wars – until soldiers come home.
It is home where those families waited for nine months, crying at night and praying for safety in a cold and desolate Afghanistan.
Until finally, the soldiers – fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters – all came home.
The raucous homecoming thrilled everybody in the hangar set up solely to greet the plane from Fort Bliss, Texas, where the soldiers had been for two weeks after leaving Afghanistan.
No more did the soldiers have to clear bombs from thousands of miles of roads. No longer did they have to dodge bullets shot by faceless insurgents.
All were home.
Best unit in Afghanistan
There were a few brief remarks from Army brass at the welcome home ceremony, but nobody listened except when Lt. Col. Corol Dobson – the commanding officer who deployed with his troops and slept in the same barracks and dodged the same bullets and bombs – told them they were the best unit in Afghanistan.
“The greatest!” Dobson yelled above surging cheers.
Task Force Prowler, commanded by Dobson and others from Rock Hill, was the largest in Afghanistan and handled the most dangerous missions. Four soldiers working with the 178th – three from New York and one from New Mexico – were killed by insurgent attacks during the deployment.
The unit trained Afghan troops, cleared roads of improvised explosive devices, and built roads.
But Friday’s welcome home was not about helmets and machine guns and missiles. It was not about words, officially bringing an end to nine months of danger.
It was about love. Love of country to enlist and serve as citizen soldiers in the National Guard.
Many of the soldiers, such as Hunter, were on second or third or fourth deployments. All left jobs and families to go fight in that war because Uncle Sam said so.
All did it with such courage and guts and determination that grown men wept Friday, watching these 161 men and women walk off that plane and march into that hangar.
Surely this welcome home was about love of the families left behind. All over the hangar, families held signs and pictures and cried and screamed to the soldier gone so long, in such danger.
Then, when the soldiers were dismissed, all rushed to find the ones they loved so much.
Capt. Robbie Kirk rushed to his daughter, Willa, 3. He hugged and kissed, and there was no more war.
Staff Sgt. Justin Switzer of Rock Hill picked up his son and hugged that little boy until both could not hug any more.
Coleman Medlin, son of Command Sgt. Major Joe Medlin of Rock Hill, the unit’s top enlisted man, called out, “I see my daddy! Daddy!”
Finally, Medlin was able to be a father to his two sons again, instead of a soldier doing all he could to keep somebody else’s son alive so he could come home from a war.
Sgt. Dan Ranucci of Rock Hill was mobbed by a swarm of family. He hugged them all.
Every soldier hugged and kissed family. They lingered in those hugs. The hugs meant home.
“I have never been happier in my life,” said Sgt. Kevin Hicklin of Rock Hill, as he squeezed his son and daughter and wife.
Through the crowd, a young soldier held his father’s shoulder as they walked. First Lt. Juan Sepulveda of Charlotte, an immigrant from Colombia, came to America in 2001. “So happy to be home,” Sepulveda said.
His father, Luis Sepulveda, was asked how proud he was of his son, the American soldier. Luis beamed. His face shone. He said, in the best English he could manage: “My son is a great man. America.”
Then the father and heroic son hugged and walked off through the hangar of heroes, passing through so many families of different colors and religions and races and creeds – all united by the bond of being an American.
Tough Chief Warrant Officer Steve Davis of Rock Hill, a grandfather back from yet another deployment, held his granddaughters and daughters and wife.
“This is why we go to war when called, these families here,” he said. “My wife, my kids, my grandchildren. They are so beautiful. Even more beautiful than I remember.”
A huge group came to see Staff Sgt. David Guffey, who has lived in Rock Hill all 54 years of his life.
His kids, adults now, Dave Jr. and daughter Holly, and so many more were thrilled, joyous.
“I’m just ready to get home with all of them,” Sgt. Guffey said.
So many families had been disrupted by this deployment.
Sgt. Vito Lyde of Darlington held on to his wife and baby daughter, Kayleigh. He, too, had never seen his daughter in person, because she was born while he was deployed.
“She’s so beautiful,” Lyde said, unable to take his eyes off her.
“Daddy’s here, honey,” he cooed.
Then he kissed her, over and over.
Not 20 feet away, Major Kevin Berry of Charleston did the same thing with son Griffin, who was born while Daddy was at war.
“My son,” said Berry, kissing his child for the first time, again and again.
Just like Sgt. Franklin Hunter did, with his son Nathan and wife Ann. Hunter’s strong arms hugged his family so tight and all looked like a ball of love intertwined together – baby Nathan, right in the middle.
War winding down
Finally, the tears were gone.
With the war in Afghanistan winding down and more troop withdrawals planned, this homecoming might be the last for almost a thousand citizen soldiers from York County armories who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The soldiers grabbed rucksacks stuffed with gear, hugged their buddies who had stayed alive with them through those awful nights of bombs and days of bullets and explosions, then picked up tiny kids in single strong arms. The other arm went around the wife or girlfriend or mom.
All walked out through a single doorway into the parking lot, where cars and trucks waited to take them home. Soldiers and families got in together, left together.
The war in Afghanistan, for these York County citizen soldiers, came to a close Friday as these men and women leaned over to kiss a sweetheart one more time, then drove off into their futures.
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