BEAUFORT -- After a year of missing birthdays, workdays and holidays, Beaufort's National Guardsmen returned home Friday night.
A crowd of about 100 people filled the drill hall at the Beaufort Readiness Center to welcome home 55 South Carolina National Guardsmen -- among them the majority of Beaufort's Troop B 202 Calvary -- who've been deployed in Afghanistan since April 2007.
Family members, retired veterans and local government officials anxiously waited as word spread that the expected 5 p.m. arrival of the soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C. would be delayed by more than an hour. Once back in the states, the troops underwent a series of mental and physical health assessments and de-briefing before their return to the Lowcountry.
Once inside the drill hall, the soldiers received quick congratulatory remarks from a handful of local officials before being mobbed by their families for hugs and kisses that have been more than 12 months in the making.
"I'm just excited to go home and see my daughter," said Spc. Justin Francis of Mount Pleasant. Francis' daughter Breanne turns 3 years old Thursday. "Just glad I made it home for the birthday," he said with a wide grin.
The local unit, comprising nearly 100 National Guardsmen, was deployed in April 2007 as part of a force training the Afghan National Army and National Police. It was the first time the unit had seen combat deployment since World War II.
For most of the troops, Friday's homecoming was their first trip back to the Lowcountry in more than a year.
Emily Ross of Walterboro clutched her tiny American flag as she awaited the return of her youngest son, Spc. Adam Ross, before the unit's arrival at the drill hall.
"It's been kind of a lonely feeling with him gone," she said. "We are very proud that he's served. He's a great son."
Spc. Ross celebrated his 21st birthday in Afghanistan and feared he would spend another birthday in the Middle East. He will turn 22 on May 17 -- at home in Walterboro.
"It's been a crazy trip home," Adam Ross said. "I'm so glad to be here. We came over on a C-17 and I said, 'I don't even care as long as I get home.' "
Emily Ross said she wasn't sure what her son was doing in Afghanistan and, for better or worse, he could offer few details about his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"Of course I was scared for him, but I tried to block it out of my mind and think about other things," she said.
Her arm wrapped around his, Emily Ross said she was glad to have her baby boy home as the pair walked out of the Beaufort Readiness Center.
"It's a feeling you can't describe," she said.
As they return to civilian life, the soldiers will undergo a series of physical and psychological check-ups to ensure that they are successfully reintegrating into the lives they once knew.