Most of the 2,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan with the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade will return home this summer, two months earlier than planned, news that is thrilling their families.
The brigade arrived in Afghanistan in January and was expected to return around September. Instead, about 1,500 of the troops will fly home to Georgia between mid-June and mid-July, Col. Matt Smith, the brigade’s commander, said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A Winder-based battalion will remain in southeastern Afghanistan for the full nine months, training Afghan security forces. They will return home in the fall, Smith said.
These decisions were long-considered, aimed at efficiency and have nothing to do with the ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan or President Donald Trump’s call in December for a substantial troop drawdown, Smith said.
Sandra and Chris McBride of Statesboro are now counting down the days until they reunite with their twin sons, Ryan and Matthew. The 23-year-old brothers deployed with the Savannah-based 1st Battalion of the 118th Field Artillery Regiment.
“We are doing a lot better now that we know they are coming back a little early,” Sandra McBride said. “We are definitely excited and ready for it to happen — ready to get them back home for some hugs and kisses.”
The parents have kept in touch with the twins through WhatsApp and FaceTime.
“There was a lot that they couldn’t tell us for security reasons,” Chris McBride said. “And just for our well-being, and especially their mom, I think they put on a really good face.”
“One of their chief complaints was, poor Wi-Fi signal. If you are on a deployment to a foreign land and you are complaining about the Wi-Fi signal, I think things are OK.”
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The Georgia troops have mixed feelings about the change, Smith said. Some are happy to come home early, and others want to continue doing their missions in Afghanistan. At the same time, he added, the brigade has gained valuable experience for future deployments.
“We experienced things through this process that you just can’t replicate,” he said, “even by going to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana like we did a year ago.”
Close calls and a tragedy
In addition to training Afghan troops and police, the troops have secured Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
Now in its 18th year, the fight in Afghanistan — the longest war in American history — has claimed the lives of 2,426 U.S. troops, according to icasualties.org. The 48th suffered 10 combat and noncombat casualties during its deployment in Afghanistan, including injuries from roadside bombs, gunshot wounds and a helicopter crash that injured two troops. The enemy did not cause the crash, Smith said. All the wounded have made full recoveries or are expected to.
“We had one soldier get shot in the helmet, and he is fine,” Smith said. “That helmet functioned as promised.”
The unit lost one soldier, Spc. Miguel L. Holmes, 22, of Hinesville, who died during a non-combat incident last month. Smith said he could not confirm the cause of death because the autopsy is incomplete.
“It was a tragedy,” he said. “Any type of loss just goes straight to your heart. We extend our condolences to his family and his extended family.”
Two Fort Bragg, N.C.-based units will replace the 48th in Afghanistan.
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Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden Jr., Georgia’s adjutant general, said the 48th is doing a “great job” in Afghanistan.
“We look forward to their safe return,” he said.
Family awaits reunion
Chris Peters of Woodstock anxiously watched his youngest son, Dalton, head off to war last year for the first time. Faith in Dalton’s military training and prayers helped steel Chris and his wife, Lori, for his deployment. Now, Chris is thrilled their son, who turned 21 in Afghanistan, is expected home this summer, much earlier than planned.
“We text almost every day,” said Chris Peters, an insurance adjuster. “The communication has been amazing. That part was extremely shocking to me, that I can text him and I can get a response and I don’t have coverage in my house.”
The father knows deployment schedules often change, so his family hasn’t planned any elaborate welcome-home events for Dalton, an Etowah High School graduate.
“We haven’t really given it much thought yet, because nothing is cast in stone until he makes that phone call,” Chris Peters said. “I won’t worry about it until he tells me, ‘Hey, I’m on the plane. I’ll see you.’”