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SC’s first military families appreciation day overshadows ‘Black Friday’

On Black Friday morning, the day after Thanksgiving, Leanne Pressley of Rock Hill might have seemed like any other shopper at Rock Hill’s Galleria, hunting for bargains for her kids and her husband.

But Pressley is different from most shoppers. Her husband, Colin Pressley, is a warrant officer with Rock Hill’s 178th Army National Guard unit. He and 160 other area soldiers spent Thanksgiving and Christmas 2012 in Afghanistan.

Leanne Pressley spent that year-long deployment helping take care of other soldiers’ families. As a key figure in the unit’s Family Readiness Group, she and other wives, mothers and children sent hundreds of care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan who had no families to send care packages.

“I always thought every soldier should know that we all at home love them and care for them and remember them,” Pressley said. “The unit is a family – and the families are one big family, too.”

She had no idea that the state of South Carolina had set aside Friday to honor her and every other military spouse and family member. On the Day of Recognition for Veterans’ Spouses and Families, she and all wives and husbands and mommas and daddies and kids of the troops – that big family – were officially honored.

Pressley learned of the new day by a self-described “old man” in an Air Force hat and jacket named Harvey Mayhill, who went to the mall on Friday just to tell her that she was the greatest. Mayhill explained that families of troops have for too long not been given the credit for holding down the fort while their loved ones go off to war.

“Mrs. Pressley, the state of South Carolina salutes you today, and I do too,” said Mayhill, 71, the Air Force retiree who pushed and pushed lawmakers until the new law went into effect in June. He saluted Pressley in the middle of J.C. Penney as other shoppers wondered what was going on.

Pressley said she was not going to cry – and she almost made it.

“It is true that the families have to make it through the deployments just like the soldiers do,” she said. “It is tough on many families.”

South Carolina’s first-in-the-nation military spouse and family appreciation day, observed on the Friday after Thanksgiving, is meant to show that the day should be about more than leftover turkey and bargains for throngs of shoppers.

The words of the state law are short and direct: “In gratitude and acknowledgment of the many and varied contributions of the spouses and families of this country’s veterans and their sacrifices for the benefit of the freedom we so richly enjoy, the Friday after Thanksgiving Day each year is designated as ‘A Day of Recognition for Veterans’ Spouses and Families’ in South Carolina.”

Mayhill spent hours in the food court of the busy mall on Friday, stopping strangers for hours to tell them about the new official day. He handed out business cards and fliers with information. He read aloud the thanks of a grateful nation to strangers who became strangers no more after a few minutes.

Rock Hill Police Detective Bradley Sims walked over. Mayhill was told that Sims, 29, served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan starting when he was a teenager. Mayhill was told that Sims was now married.

“Give this card to your wife, and tell her that South Carolina and America honors her today,” Mayhill told Sims. “And we honor you, too.”

This first-ever day of recognition had no bands, no troop marches, no pomp and circumstance. No politicians of any party looking for votes or applause ruined it. The day in Rock Hill, where the idea was born, was about asking strangers at the mall if they were part of a military family, and being told they are great if they did.

Vietnam War veteran Frank Williford and his family were thanked. A Marine Corps wife was thanked. A former Army 82nd Airborne soldier who served in Afghanistan and Iraq walked by with his fiancee, and the fiancee was thanked.

Kathy McDaniel was thanked for being the grandmother of a recent Marine Corps boot camp graduate who will soon be sent to the other side of the world. She and her group of motorcycle-riding friends – called the Extended Biker Family – have spent years helping soldiers and families.

“It is great that the families are getting recognized,” she said.

Supporters now hope that other states will enact similar recognition days for military families.

Angelo Perry and his wife walked up. Perry is a veteran, and one of the couple’s sons spent 10 years on a Navy nuclear submarine. Arlene Perry, military wife, military mother, was saluted. She was hugged.

“I always worried when my son was in the service,” she said. “And I worry for every one of the soldiers, the troops, who are in Afghanistan or anywhere else. I still think about them all.”

The simple act of thanking military families was what this Friday after Thanksgiving was all about – overshadowing “Black Friday” with three other colors.

Call it, “Red, White and Blue Friday.”

“Got a quite a ring to it,” Mayhill said.