The South Carolina Army National Guard’s Det-1, Company B, 2-238th Aviation, General Support Aviation Battalion’s prepare to deploy after their departure ceremony at the Donaldson Center on Wednesday.
The men and women stood at attention in straight lines, a green Chinook helicopter behind them, as they listened to the National Anthem, bowed their heads in prayer and heard final instructions and words of encouragement from commanding officers.
Many in the detachment of nearly 60 soldiers had stood in similar departure ceremonies before. But once again, they’re headed overseas on a mission to provide air support to the U.S. military’s tactical operations in Afghanistan – a war that began seven years before this unit ever formed in 2008 and is now America’s longest military engagement.
Most of these 60 members of the South Carolina Army National Guard’s Company B, 2nd Battalion 238th Aviation unit will leave Thursday for a month of training at a station in Texas before heading overseas to Afghanistan for approximately one year.
The detachment includes 13 pilots, while the rest are support personnel for six CH-47 Chinooks that will head overseas with them, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Barkley. They don’t know their exact destination but will be deploying with the new Chinook F-Model for the first time, he said.
This will mark the unit’s third deployment to Afghanistan, Barkley said. Many of the soldiers wore white patches – a sign of previous combat experience – and have deployed multiple times to either Afghanistan, Iraq or Kuwait either with this detachment or others. This will mark Barkley’s third deployment overseas, he said. One soldier will be sent on his fourth deployment.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Barkley, who had been on the command side in previous deployments but was offered the opportunity to come back as a pilot for this tour.
The unit has prepared for nearly a year for deployment, said Major General Van McCarty, the S.C. Deputy Adjutant General. They’ve flown training flights in the new models over the skies of Simpsonville and Anderson for months in preparation in the new Chinooks, Barkley said.
Their mission was set before President Donald Trump’s address this week, in which he shifted from campaign talk of a drawdown in Afghanistan and instead decided to commit additional troops to the ongoing 16-year engagement.
Lt, Col. Douglas Leslie told the gathered crowd of families who watched from seats inside the hanger that this had been a particularly difficult mission to prepare for with a changing administration but said they have the “full faith and confidence of the administration” toward the mission in Afghanistan.
“You’re well qualified, well experienced and have the best equipment,” he told the soldiers.
Barkley said the unit is focused on its immediate mission and on the experience and cohesion they’ve built during training. He said he’s not worried about the direction President Trump set this week in Afghanistan because “no matter where we go, we’re trained and we’re ready.”
“I have to focus on the small picture and let those commissioned officers and those commanders above us filter for us and give us what we need to be successful in doing our job,” Barkley said.
The soldiers stood in uniform throughout the formal ceremony inside a sweat-inducing hanger at the Army Aviation Support Facility #2 at the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center, formerly called the Donaldson Center.
This will mark the second tour of duty for avionics Specialist Kevin Parker, whose two-year-old daughter, Leah, broke free from her mother’s arms and wandered out to the soldiers – still in formation – as the ceremony wrapped up.
“It’s a little bit harder the second time around, especially with the little one involved,” Parker said. “I have another one that’s just been born. It takes my breath away to know that I’m leaving for an amazing reason but also, you know, standing up for something that I believe in.”
Amy Orr’s husband, Staff Sgt. Joshua Orr, will be deployed for the second time, but the first time with a child. He held his 22-month old son Nathan on his shoulders as Nathan waved two American flags in his hands.
“It’s hard at first, but you get into a routine,” Amy Orr said. “You find your support system and you try to stay busy… Pretty much anything that’s going to break is going to break when they leave, but you get through it.”
The unit also has been called into service at home. It went to Columbia in October 2015 to fill a breach in the Columbia Canal after the 1,000-year flood that devastated parts of the state.
In 2016, the unit deployed to Hurricane Matthew to resupply first responders and stranded civilians in Beaufort and then provided support for the Pinnacle Mountain Fire in Pickens County last fall.
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