CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – The temperature outside has dropped below “normal” for South Carolina soldiers deployed to Kosovo during this holiday season. Soldiers don multi-layers of clothing before walking to the dining facility to receive their holiday meal of turkey, dressing, collard greens and sweet potato pie. Soldiers can still get a decent Southern meal while deployed. But this meal is a special one for it is the last holiday meal Spc. Thomas D. Hamilton will have in the South Carolina Army National Guard.
Hamilton normally spends Thanksgiving at one of his four children’s houses or Christmas dinner at his 84-year-old mother’s house in Arkansas.
“I will be missing family, especially my mother,” said Hamilton. “My mother is a great cook, you name it, she can cook it for Christmas.”
Hamilton, an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment, in Gaffney, S.C., is 59 years old and approaching his 20-year mark in the National Guard. Not unusual, except Hamilton re-enlisted in the Guard after a 15-year break in service.
“I didn’t imagine getting back in. I was 53 when I got back in,” said Hamilton. “I retired on a Friday night from my civilian job and got back in the Guard that Saturday.”
For 33 years, Hamilton worked for CMC Joyce, a commercial metal corporation that builds joists. Starting there in 1973, he moved from Arkansas to South Carolina to become a plant superintendent.
“My civilian job worked hard on me. It was always a conflict being in the Guard,” said Hamilton. “I always wished I had stayed in.”
It wasn’t until a friend talked to a recruiter about Hamilton, discovering he had to be able to retire by a certain age in order to get back in the Guard.
“I was right there at the limit,” said Hamilton, who didn’t hesitate to serve his country again. “This old man said he wanted to retire infantry for some reason.”
Joining the Guard again wasn’t just all Hamilton was about to do. After 15 years, many things had changed in the military. More deployments were on the horizon, longer tours and rigorous pre-deployment training.
“I was proud to make it to this deployment. It was hard but I did it,” said Hamilton. “I went through with the infantry boys, did the extra training.”
Even though Hamilton was older going through training, he had experience under his belt to help him get through the challenges.
“At times, I thought I was going to die, but I made it,” said Hamilton. “I have learned a lot. A lot has changed. You have to be pretty sharp.”
Two prior deployments as a light infantryman to Panama and Honduras during his first stretch in the Guard gave Hamilton a taste of “roughing” it.
“I have been through a lot rougher than what I’m in now,” said Hamilton. “In light infantry, we lived under a poncho for at least two weeks at a time.”
Fortunately, Hamilton isn’t living under a poncho for his deployment in Kosovo. Currently he resides in a heated tent with a wooden floor at Gate 1, the northern most area of operations for Multi-national Battle Group – East. This is just one of the locations Hamilton will rotate between while deployed in Kosovo.
“We are spending Christmas on Camp Bondsteel and having a few down days as our leadership covers our roles,” said Hamilton, who works in the tactical operations center at Gate 1.
His leadership can vouch for Hamilton’s dedication to duty and the knowledge he brings to the table.
“He is a good soldier. I call him the grandfather of the unit. He is full of wisdom,” said 1st Sgt. Sammie A. Robertson, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment first sergeant. “His stamina is still the same as an 18-year-old. He lasts longer than some younger guys.”
Hamilton will finish his 20 years of service this September. Upon retirement, he says he will ride around on his 4-wheeler and sit around the burn barrel at his home outside Columbia, S.C. His stamina will stay the same as he continues his hunting and fishing hobbies and pass on his wisdom to his oldest son who is also in the SCARNG.
Hamilton, who turns 60 on Jan. 3, has one piece of advice for younger troops.
“To the guys that get into the military, don’t do it like me and get out for 15 years. Stay in and get your 20. It will be beneficial in the end,” he said.