Friends and family reunite with Fort Mill-based guardsmen
By Andrew Dys - Herald columnist
The 3-year-old eyes, frantic and wide, piercing and dark, searched for Daddy.
The little girl from Clover, after 12 months of nights without her father, stood in the front row of families that were cheering wilder than any rock concert - so short she could not see the only soldier out of 105 that she knew, or recognized. Or needed so badly.
The soldier she ached for at night when her mom told her that her father loved her and would come home soon. Daddy was finally home from Afghanistan and a war Friday afternoon, but Dakota Seaford could not find him. She saw waists and legs and chests and heard screams of joy - but saw no familiar smile.
Dakota's tiny fingers gripped a sign she had made herself, poster board with sparkles on it that were blue and gold. She looked from side to side at the group of Army National Guard 1222nd Combat Engineers. Her gaze was frantic as the soldiers stood in a hangar at Columbia's airport.
Directly in front of her stood the tallest soldier of all, Sgt. Marion Ramsey of Sharon, his third deployment over, locking eyes finally with his own wife and daughter, who had rushed in to see him.
There was love in those eyes between father and daughter Ramsey, husband and wife Ramsey.
Still, Dakota looked left and she looked right. Finally, her mother, Anita Seaford, saw the back line. The last soldier in the last row, Sgt. Scott Seaford of Clover.
Seaford's eyes had searched the room, frantic, too, until his eyes first locked with his wife's.
And then, in a moment that stopped time, a moment that was silent but seemed to roar above the talk of the dignitaries who spoke briefly but seemed to last years, Scott Seaford and his daughter locked eyes.
All over that hangar, with the families forming a "U" around the soldiers in formation, the same story played out.
The searching eyes, then the finding of a wife who was crying or a child who was bursting or a mother who was trembling, as the brief ceremony wound down. Scott Seaford's eyes, and his wife's eyes, and his daughter's eyes - all at the same time started to fill with tears that are not despair anymore, but joy that can be seen and felt and almost touched.
Nobody in that room at that minute when the tears were falling and the hearts were pumping was a Democrat or a Republican. They were just, simply, Americans from South Carolina.
Soldiers and families. Most from York and Chester and Lancaster counties, these National Guardsmen from the Fort Mill armory unit, had just given a year of their lives to their country - and another country - doing the most dangerous job in the world, clearing bombs from roads.
In front of that line as the ceremony concluded was 1st Sgt. Tracy Payne of Rock Hill.
He tried hard not to look at the two tiny girls, twins, to his right, because he had to give commands to his troops, just as he had the past year to ensure those men and women came home alive.
If he saw the faces of his daughters, Olivia and Annaliese, he might have laughed. Or cried.
Because when Payne told the soldiers to stand at attention, these tiny girls - who had turned 2 just two weeks before, without their father - stood at attention.
When Payne told the soldiers to stand at parade rest, with arms behind their backs, that is exactly what Olivia and Annaliese did.And Payne would have heard these tiny girls saying, quietly, to each other and to the world: "Dad. Mine. My daddy."
Finally, Payne was given an order by an officer to release the soldiers to their families, and the rush was on.
Seaford, in the back, rushed to that daughter Dakota and they grabbed each other. Those eyes that had been searching side to side locked closed to keep the tears from falling out.
They hugged and they hugged without a word for so long, because there was nothing to say that those squeezing arms didn't convey through muscle and bone and love.
At last, Payne no longer had to stay composed. He grabbed his daughters in his two arms and they grabbed him with four arms and all of it was a tangle of fingers and elbows and kisses and hugs and blond hair and love.
Over and over that played out. Kisses of longing between husbands and wives lasted for seconds that stretched to minutes. Noses rubbing together. Foreheads bumping, unfamiliar because of the year missed, then finally, connection with lips.
Molly Ramsey, 16 now, found her father. She was 9 the first time Sgt. Marion Ramsey came home - that time from Iraq - when she wore a sparkly "Daddy's Girl" T-shirt and cried so much her freckles seemed to smear. The second time Ramsey came home a couple of years ago, Molly had braces and cried a lot, too, and her lips hurt from the braces as she buried her face in her huge father's warm shoulder.
Now Molly drives, the braces are gone and she did not cry, but she looked at her father with eyes that are the same as when she was 9. Cobalt blue and loving and still she was, yes, "Daddy's Girl."
Without words, she told her father after a hug that - even though he had missed four of the past seven years fighting wars instead of helping her with homework or riding horses or seeing her play sports - she loved him so much.
And Marion Ramsey's eyes, toward his wife and daughter, said the exact same thing: Love - for family, for country. That is what all realized Friday. These men and women had given so much - some of them twice or three times deployed - missing birthdays and games and meals and the rest of life.
The families gave so much, too.
A 19-year-old specialist named Jonathan Jones - with two field promotions in this deployment that took him to war just weeks after graduating from Fort Mill High School - talked about his excitement at seeing his mother and grandmother and baby sisters. Soldiers came by and told this young man what a great soldier he was, and is, and how proud they were of him at age 19 doing the only job he has ever had - fighting in a war.
Eventually, the reunions of all these soldiers and families broke up. The troops looked for their gear, hugged their buddies, and left to go home.
By about 3 p.m. just a few stragglers were left - because the plane had landed about 45 minutes earlier than expected. Worse, a wreck on Interstate 77 near Columbia had slowed traffic for a while.
Stuck in that traffic, crying, distraught, was Starr Lowman. Behind her, in the car seat, her 6-week old daughter, Khloe. Waiting outside the hangar - first with buddies and finally alone outside the hangar - was one soldier who received no rush during the welcome because families were delayed.
Sgt. Donald Lowman was thanked by so many soldiers for being such a good sergeant, a fair leader whose men respected him, as he stood there and all those families left. He stood there like a statue, hard, a sergeant back from Afghanistan where his duty was to keep young soldiers alive. That is exactly what this guy who is a carpenter in regular life did.
The 1222nd suffered no deaths performing the most dangerous job in the world. Carpenters and plumbers and electricians, salesmen and cops and truck drivers in civilian life back home turned into full-time soldiers, disabling bombs, hailed by all as the best.
Finally, there in the all-but empty lot, an SUV pulled up. Out the door lunged Starr Lowman. Sgt. Lowman rushed up.
No cheers. No standing in formation. No searching eyes.
But this little family shared an incredible hug. Sgt. Lowman and Starr grew up as next-door neighbors but never dated. They found each other as adults. And now they have this baby.
"The wait was worth it," said Donald Lowman, of that hug with his wife and daughter.
Then Lowman got another hug. And another. He had waited a long time for this moment.
Then Khloe started crying. Sgt. Donald Lowman, who until Friday afternoon had spent his time clearing bombs from roads, shushed the baby. And Khloe stopped crying - somehow, some way, knowing Daddy finally held her in his arms