South Carolina National Guard troops who had been training at Fort McCoy, Wis., for duty in Afghanistan arrived in Spartanburg and Fort Mill on Wednesday. Hundreds of family members and well-wishers crowded the parking lot of the Lowe's store in Fort Mill as about 100 members of the 1222nd Engineer Company arrived at midday. Another 100 from the 174th Engineer Company arrived in Spartanburg.
"There's daddy!" shouted 10-year-old Brittany Detter of Gastonia, N.C., waving, as the soldiers lined up for a brief formation before being dismissed.
She, her four younger sisters and mother had eagerly awaited his return in Fort Mill.
"It's been lonely without him," Brittany said. His absence on Christmas "would've been lonely and sad because he wouldn't see us open our presents, and it would've been emotional for our mother."
It will be the third deployment for her father, Spc. Justin Horne. "They all got bigger," he said, holding his 1- and 3-year-old girls in his arms. "I'm ready to have some fun."
The men and woman are on a 10-day leave after two months of training. They return to Wisconsin on Jan. 1.
"It's great to be home. It's cold up there," said Sgt. Elizabeth Summy of York.
Donations made their trip home possible. Federal regulations bar soldiers from traveling at government expense while on leave, so the troops would have had to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket - which many didn't have. When word got out earlier this month, donations poured in, with people giving between $2 and $1,000 each. The necessary $35,000 was raised in two days, with help from a $25,000 donation from Lowe's, organizers said.
"This has touched my heart in a way nothing in my life ever has," said Wanda Bennett, of Richburg, coordinator for the Guard's family readiness group. Her son, 22-year-old Spc. Alan Bennett, was among those arriving in Fort Mill. "These are our husbands and sons and wives and mothers. They needed to be home for Christmas."
Their welcome, following a 23-hour bus ride, included a motorcycle escort by 27 Rolling Thunder members. Their buses drove under a 20-by-40-foot American flag supported on fire truck ladders in the parking lot, as American flags on poles lined both sides of their entry.
Each soldier left with a 103-piece tool kit, and a goodie bucket of donated items, including soft drinks, chocolates, a ham and a Lowe's gift card.
Soldiers said they didn't realize their arrival would be such a big event.
"There's a lot of support here, and we do appreciate it," said Scott Seaford of Lake Wylie, holding his 2-year-old daughter, who wore a shirt that read "Proud that my Dad serves our country." She was born shortly after his first deployment to Afghanistan. "It's good to get a little break and come home," he said.
Troops generally get just four days of leave now. But commanders worked out a 10-day leave for the South Carolina Guard, then it looked like they'd be stuck in Wisconsin. It would have been a huge expense for families to go up there, said Maj. Corol Dobson of Rock Hill, a battalion executive officer.
"This is a big morale booster," he said.
Claire Merritt, 21, of Columbia, was welcoming home her fiance, Spc. William Porter, of Abbeville. They plan to marry when he returns from his first deployment.
"There's nothing better than having your whole family home for Christmas," she said.
Rusty and Sandra Cotton of Clover were picking up their 19-year-old son, Joshua Gordon, who was so eager to join the military, they had to approve his joining at just 17, Rusty Cotton said. After his first Thanksgiving away from home, they were thrilled to have him home for Christmas.
Tammi Kimbrell, of Rock Hill, said she was so excited about seeing her husband, "my stomach's full of butterflies, and I'm shaking."
Bob Weber was among the many veterans and residents who came out just to show support.
"It's like fireworks going off in your heart," said the Fort Mill resident, who was in the Navy from 1964-68 and whose son served during Operation Desert Storm. "I went through this with my son."
Donna Ferrell-Harris of Rock Hill cried "joyous tears" as she waited to see her only child, who will be off on his second deployment.
"I know what lies ahead, so I'm really glad he's home," she said.