ROCK HILL — For years underground, in the York County jail, a short, tough guy in a police uniform handled one of the toughest jobs in America – prison guard.
But Lavell Barrett is not at work at the jail anymore. He handed in his gun and Taser and handcuffs for a machine gun and gas mask and helmet.
Barrett was handed the duty of being in charge of about 70 soldiers in one of two field combat companies with the S.C. Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers, as a first sergeant.
His job is to keep those 70 men and women alive in Afghanistan.
The last three nights, after the 178th arrived in Afghanistan and made its way to a place so remote that television not discovered it yet, the soldiers did not even have beds yet to sleep on.
Barrett took care of those men.
In the next few days Barrett, on his second Afghanistan tour, will send those men into the most dangerous place on earth, to do the most dangerous jobs in the world.
“Lavell Barrett is not forgotten,” said Sheriff Bruce Bryant. “And Bryan Loncaric is not forgotten – you can be sure of that.”
Loncaric, a jail sergeant who handles training, is also in the 178th now in Afghanistan.
“Politicians – I don’t care what party – they forget who it is goes over there and does the duty,” said Bryant, a Republican. “The work where the bullets are real and the bombs do go off, that is what these wars are all about.
“Any politician forgets about soldiers in Afghanistan, that’s a sad day.”
Another six deputies at the sheriff’s office have served in Iraq or Afghanistan or both. They are among more than 30 employees who are either current or former military.
“We do not forget what they do or forget Afghanistan – ever,” said Bryant.
On Thursday, an Associated Press story that ran all over the world – and in The Herald – about how politicians who want to be president or vice president rarely, if ever, mention Afghanistan.
It reported how polls show the public doesn’t talk about it, that congressmen and others don’t bring it up.
That the war is a forgotten war.
Nobody in York County with a pulse forgets that the 178th Combat Engineers just landed in Afghanistan for a nine-month tour with 168 soldiers.
Men and women from York, Chester and Lancaster counties, with kids and spouses, who worked regular jobs and now are serving, for many, a second, third, even fourth deployment.
The other first sergeant, leading the 178th’s other field company and its 70 soldiers, is a guy named Johnny Beverly. In between three war deployments, Beverly works with his back and legs and hands for the Rock Hill school district.
Johnny Beverly once took a two-week leave from Afghanistan to work so kids back home had clean schools with lights and toilets that worked.
“He does everything and anything anybody ever asked, a great guy and tough guy,” said Brian Vaughan, who runs what used to be called the maintenance department. “Every time he goes, we send packages, and Christmas we always send a lot.
“Forgot? We don’t forget Johnny – or any of the soldiers he’s with.”
At the Rock Hill armory, the home base of the 178th, there are boxes and boxes of school supplies. The pens and paper and more were donated by the people of York County, to be given to the kids of these soldiers who are gone.
Those who donate do not forget.
On the wall are posters created by preschoolers with tiny American flags on them, saying such things in kid-scribble as, “God Bless America!” and, “We love you!”
There is a mural of tiny handprints from the First Baptist Church of Rock Hill preschool that shows that these soldiers are not forgotten. The church, for years, has opened its doors and coffers and hearts to the families of these soldiers.
Another church, St. John United Methodist in Fort Mill, provides free child care for the families of those deployed. Businesses such as Fort Mill Ford, just one of many, offer space, people, money and time for these families and soldiers.
All is done by volunteers, who do not forget Afghanistan – ever.
“They are over there serving their country and not complaining,” said Teressa Rogers of First Baptist. “And I can tell you that none of us will ever forget them.”
On the sign outside the armory are yellow ribbons, showing nobody forgets those who are deployed.
Except maybe politicians or the rich of America or those who want to be rich. Those who are in politics and policy.
On Thursday, politicians of both parties who want to be president and vice president and their acolytes rode around in huge planes and SUVs. The candidates whose most stringent work is cashing campaign checks and begging those even richer than them for money claim to care about America, and talk about things that supposedly matter.
They all ate a big lunch paid for by taxpayers or donors and talked about how patriotic they are. Security teams guarded their every move.
In Afghanistan Thursday, 168 men and women from York County who left families and jobs to fight in a war ate rehydrated food from a pouch. They ate with one hand and held an M-16 rifle in the other, as the security team for them is each other.
The politicians who forget, or choose to not talk about Afghanistan, will spend the next two weeks at conventions.
Republicans will gather next week in Florida, and rich guys in bow ties will talk about the economy and the brutality of paying taxes.
Democrats, the week after, will meet in Charlotte. Rich guys in bowties will talk about the economy and how they want rich people to pay more taxes.
All of both parties will sleep in nice hotel beds during for the conventions, with limitless free booze and food.
The national media and Charlotte media will offer breathless, countless stories about oyster appetizers and tax policy, sightings of celebrities, hotel occupancy and security.
Antiwar protesters who wonder about when wars will end will be portrayed as outcasts.
All the while, 168 men and women from York County’s armory will be traveling down the highways of eastern Afghanistan, near Pakistan, clearing bombs. They will sleep – without even a single cold beer to slake the thirst and drive out the dust in a country that allows no alcohol – on the ground.
President Obama, who was the anti-war candidate and rarely mentions Afghanistan but has still sent so many troops there, will accept a nomination in Charlotte.
He will hear thunderous applause, exactly 22 miles from Dianne Massey’s front door in Fort Mill. It was on that front door that a few days before Christmas 2007, soldiers knocked and told Massey that her son was dead in Afghanistan.
Josh Blaney had been blown up at age 25.
Dianne Massey does not forget Afghanistan.
She has not been invited to any political conventions. She gets no free food.
Politicians rarely bring up the cost of the war in Afghanistan, either, in trillions of dollars or thousands of bodies.
“These politicians – and I don’t care which party – they are talking about the economy, and there are 80,000 troops over there and no end in sight,” Massey said Thursday. “It upsets me that nobody wants to talk about ending this war and not sending more troops.
“I voted for Obama and he hasn’t done anything. The other party is no different. They all forget.”
But Massey, in that house in Fort Mill, does not forget Afghanistan, where her son died.
Where Marine Staff Sgt. T.J. Dudley of Fort Mill died in 2011.
Last weekend, Massey drove to Fayetteville, N.C., to attend the funeral of the first sergeant from her son’s unit in Afghanistan. The same young man had come to Massey’s home, consoled her and told her that her son had guts and courage on the battlefield.
That soldier’s name was Russell Bell.
“One a day on average – our young men are getting killed over there one a day, and somebody wants to forget?” Massey said, asking a question that cannot be answered.
One wife of a soldier from the 178th who is in Afghanistan now read the story about politicians forgetting, and the public supposedly forgetting, and a country supposedly forgetting.
She readied for work Thursday. She took care of a child alone. She dealt with bills alone.
She was so busy she forgot something – her lunch.
She did not forget a husband or Afghanistan.
The wife cried alone.
Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 email@example.com