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Deployment to Afghanistan for 160 York County soldiers means agony for families

The license plate reads Gold Star Mothers. There is only way to get one.

Your son dies in a war.

So when Dianne Massey, whose son died in Afghanistan, stands in her yard in Fort Mill and says of the news that more than 160 York County Army National Guard soldiers will, by this summer, be in Afghanistan: “I wish none of them had to go,” it comes with more weight than a mine collapse.

Especially after an Army sergeant, in his third deployment, this past Sunday allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, setting off a firestorm of protest against soldiers.

In Afghanistan, the most dangerous job on earth is held by American servicemen clearing roads of bombs – just as those area National Guard soldiers likely will do starting in July.

Massey’s son, Josh Blaney, 25, was killed by a roadside bomb in December 2007 during his third deployment. Blaney already had earned a chestful of medals and a Purple Heart.

For some of these local soldiers shipping out in July, it will be the second, third – even fourth – deployment.

“How much do these people who send our sons off to these wars over and over expect them to take?” Massey asked.

The answer is, apparently, that soldiers have to take it – over and over again.

John McCain, the candidate for president who lost in 2008, said the war in Afghanistan could last 50 years or even a hundred years. He was promptly trounced by millions of votes.

Yet Barack Obama, who ran partly on an anti-war platform in 2008, who ascended to the presidency amid hopes that Afghanistan would soon be another mispronounced country with bad roads, continues to send troops to Afghanistan by the planeload and shipful. Obama’s people claim that maybe by 2014 the war will be over.

The date 2014 does not help if you are the wife of a National Guard soldier in Rock Hill in 2012, 178th Combat Engineers, and your orders read: “Combat.”

Shari Propst of York knows this. Her son, Chris, was wounded in Afghanistan last year.

A pair of buddies with her son, who had eaten grilled steaks and drank ice cold beers at Propst’s York home just weeks before, were wounded worse than her son. One of those young men died there in the rocks of Afghanistan.

“The families, I know what they will go through, and there is no way to describe it,” Propst said. “We just have to remember that our troops are the best, that they do their duty, and we sure wait for them at home to get home.”

Chris Van Aller is a political science professor at Winthrop University, with a knowledge of the Middle East and the wars and crises there.

The low-intensity war in Afghanistan – the repeated rotations, the recent crisis with the civilian deaths and Koran burnings, the short bursts of combat hindered by political orders – means America is in danger of losing the “symbolism” battle in Afghanistan, he said.

“In these political wars – this war in particular that has dragged on a decade – symbolism is everything, and people sending loved ones over there have every reason to be concerned,” Van Aller said. “I admire our guys endlessly, but they must be exhausted from these deployments over and over.

“That type of war is the hardest for the military to handle.”

There is no doubt the recent deaths of civilians makes for a dangerous Afghanistan right now, said First Sgt. Tracy Payne – the top enlisted man with the Fort Mill Army National Guard unit that spent a year in Afghanistan through October 2010.

But the civilian unrest is usually short-lived, he said, even if it is loud and in front of the whole world on television and the Internet.

“By the time our guys get there, hopefully, they will find things closer to back to normal,” Payne said. “What people are seeing is not the whole country.”

Payne, whose awesome responsibility was to take 105 men to Afghanistan and return each of them home to wives and kids and mothers, knows what these soldiers who will leave for duty in May, then Afghanistan in July face.

“The soldiers here, those going, are the best – period,” Payne said. “They know where they are going, what they will have to do.”

The families will spend that nine months close to sleepless terror and agony, though.

Bonnie Hoagland of Chester will tell anybody that. Her National Guard husband and three sons have been to Afghanistan and Iraq, two or three times each, and another son is in Afghanistan right now.

“He is right where all this happened, where those civilians died and our guys now have to deal with it, and you are damn right I am scared to death,” said Bonnie Hoagland, who in 10 years of sending all her men to war has earned more than a small right to talk loud and with passion.

One of her sons was wounded in Afghanistan. Bonnie Hoagland is the American face of a worried wife/mother, sending men to war.

“For the most part of a decade, I have spent it worrying about wars on the other side of the world and if my boys, or my husband, is going to get hurt – or worse,” Hoagland said. “You never stop worrying. Now, with this idiot shooting civilians, it is worse.”

Sgt. Eric Kimbrell of Rock Hill, who returned in 2010 from his third deployment – his last – each time leaving a wife and two daughters, said there is no doubt, none, that each family who has a soldier who will be deploying soon is nervous and scared.

“Every house is talking about this,” Kimbrell said. “The deployment, and what is going on over there right now.”

And what that is, at least for now, is a country of Afghanistan that has so many people in it who hate the American uniform.

Inside each uniform is a person with a wife or a momma or kids – maybe all three – praying for this war to end.

Want to help?

In advance of the deployment of more than 160 area soldiers to Afghanistan, the Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineer Battalion Family Readiness Group is holding an informational meeting from 2 to 5 p.m. May 31 at the Rock Hill armory, 126 Museum Road, just off S.C. 161, next to the Rock Hill/York County Airport.

For information or to donate, call Anne Cash at 803-417-8600, Wanda Bennett at 803-519-6292 or Buddy Reid at 803-367-6495.