Bulky armored vehicles, searing heat and deadly mortar missiles were just a few of the less-than-welcoming things that awaited the members of the U.S. Army’s 218th Infantry Brigade during their Afghan mission.
The 218th’s deployment in Feb. 2007 was considered the largest in the history of the South Carolina National Guard. They began returning home this April.
Part of the group spent approximately a year in war-torn Afghanistan as part of Task Force Phoenix, training and mentoring the Afghan National Army and the National Police. Still others were part of an elite infantry advisory team who worked with the Afghan army and police forces.
Whatever their role in Operation Enduring Freedom, the soldiers faced unknown enemies in an unknown land. Their mind and spirit enabled them to face danger without fear and earned their designation as the exemplification of courage for the month of May as part of the Orangeburg County Community of Character initiative.
“I am glad the brigade received the honor. It feels good to know that we are appreciated,” Sgt. Tina Smith said.
The Branchville resident was a member of the 218th Brigade Company B/163 Battalion that was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Task Force Phoenix. She trained at Camp Shelby, Miss. and worked as an electronic repairer thousands of miles away from home in what she said could be a hostile environment.
“Every time we went out the gate, you had to worry about improvised explosive devices, especially suicide vehicle-borne explosive devices. A couple of them hit the gate where I was stationed, but no soldiers were killed. It took courage to go out of the gate even though we were in armored vehicles,” she said.
Lt. Col. Bill Connor of Orangeburg served as team leader of an infantry advisory team in southern Afghanistan as part of the 218th Infantry Brigade. He said his courage came from the peace he has with God through an unwavering faith.
“We have different beliefs, but I think for a lot of us real courage comes from God. Courage is facing the unknown. As we know now, it takes courage to deploy to Afghanistan and get used to a certain manner of living,” he said, noting that the soldiers never knew what their next experience would be once they ventured off of their base.
Would it be a mortar attack? Suicide bomb? Firefight? They didn’t know.
“I think one of the key things as citizen soldiers is that we really had to put our civilian lives out of our head during that time. The focus has to be on the combat mission we’re facing … and it required that kind of dedication,” he said, stressing that the year he spent away from his wife and three children was still very hard.
“We just couldn’t wait to see each other, which is why I got a little bit frustrated with the flight delays,” Connor said.
Gary Smith said he was also glad to see his daughter, Tina.
He said he felt as if a part of himself was missing while she was away, particularly since she had always lived at home. Gary Smith said Tina and the rest of her fellow soldiers deserve to be honored for their service.
“I think the 218th deserved any commendations they received. I feel that some of the troops should have higher commendations than they received. I just thank God Tina has returned safely and that most of the rest of the 218th returned safely to their families,” he said.
Connor said he is appreciative of the Orangeburg County Community of Character for recognizing not only the soldiers, but anyone who has made a difference in their communities.
“I think it’s excellent. Where I think it matters most is for our children who need good role models. There are many other citizens, not just soldiers, who are feeding the poor and saving the nation. That’s really who we want our children to emulate. They need to see that kind of recognition,” he said.