Andrew Dys

Rock Hill reaction to SC guard deaths: 'We will support these families'

By 2014 the war in Afghanistan is supposed to be over. But 2014 didn’t get here fast enough.

Three South Carolina soldiers died there Wednesday, and at least five more were wounded.

Here in Rock Hill, 160 more soldiers at the armory have prepared to go to that same awful place.

Gene Blackwell of York, a retired general who knows combat, used one word to describe the last two days for anybody with a connection to someone in uniform: “Horrible.”

Of 21 people killed in a Wednesday bombing in western Afghanistan, three were soldiers from South Carolina’s Army National Guard. At least five were wounded.

“These are the hardest days of all in that uniform, and for every family of every military person,” said Blackwell. “These are the days that all dread.”

Blackwell was a rice paddy grunt in Vietnam who killed and saw killing. He later led tens of thousands of soldiers in the first Iraq War. His decisions, his orders, sent men into battle where soldiers were wounded and died. Every order meant some young guy would be looking at death, and Blackwell’s throat tightened up and his guts churned and he did it anyway because that is war.

And at times in his three decades in the Army Gene Blackwell was one of those officers who knocked on the door of a dead soldier’s parents, or wife, and brought the terrible news home.

For three families in South Carolina, that knock came Thursday.

“You never get used to it, seeing that family with that news,” said Blackwell. “It never gets easier. There is nothing harder in the world.”

That news of death makes it the worst one-day death toll for South Carolina’s National Guard, which has sent tens of thousands of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade.

“I feel so bad for those families,” said Cynthia Butler of Rock Hill, who knows the pain herself. Marine Kenneth James Butler, the grandson of Cynthia and Carlton Butler, was killed in action in Iraq in 2005 at age 18.

“It is the worst thing to hear. And there is nothing that anybody can do,” she said.

For Bonnie Hoagland of Chester, word of deaths and wounded was more than she could bear. Hoagland has had one son wounded in Afghanistan, in deployments of her husband and four sons that have spanned a decade. Her family knows a soldier deployed to the same unit that was involved in the carnage that left three families in despair.

“This is just terrible, awful,” said Hoagland.

On Thursday, more than 160 soldiers from the Rock Hill 178th Combat Engineer Battalion prepared to leave for Afghanistan July 8. The soldiers have been on active duty for more than a month in training. Every one has a family who went from worried to distraught at hearing that violence has gotten worse in Afghanistan where the local soldiers will go in days.

“As the 178th prepares to leave, the angst will be worse now,” Blackwell, the retired general, said. “These families will be filled with anxiety now, more than ever before, and so will this entire community.”

For area Afghanistan war veterans, the word that three soldiers died and more were wounded was a terrible reminder of what they had gone through in deployments.

“I hate to hear this,” said Eric Kimbrell of Rock Hill, who was deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq with the National Guard. Kimbrell was a squad leader, responsible for soldiers who left wives and kids to go to war. The soldiers who died – those families now have to deal with the grief, and the loss.

This is not a news story anymore about somebody else’s war. This war killed three of our own and wounded at least five others, and more than 160 area soldiers are getting ready to go to the same place.

Word had spread around the 178th soldiers and their families and among so many who are supporting all of them by Thursday. Death and injury in Afghanistan for them is now not just something to worry about: It happened to others from the National Guard, from this very state.

“Every soldier in South Carolina is one of ours, and we have to support these families as they deal with this terrible event,” said Anne Cash, who runs the Family Readiness Group for the 178th.