Oklahoma lost four of its National Guardsmen in a week of fighting in Afghanistan.
Despite multiple deployments since 9/11, the Guard's casualty numbers have been low — until now. In seven days, the number of Oklahoma National Guardsmen killed in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan went from five to nine.
It's a pace that has the state's military leaders worried for the morale of their soldiers' friends and loved ones. About 2,200 Oklahoma Guardsmen with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team are in Afghanistan, and each have family members who are left home to worry.
“Seeing casualties anytime is extremely difficult for all of us, but the families of deployed guards
“Being the father of a formerly deployed soldier, I know what these families are going through. It is the unknown.”
John Ewy knows the feeling. His son, 2nd Lt. Jared Ewy, of Edmond, was one of two guardsmen killed July 29 when they were attacked with a homemade bomb.
“He was a special young man,” John Ewy said. “He touched an awful lot of lives. I pray every day for the men and women that are over there.”
Previous casualties kept low
Three Oklahoma Guardsmen died in a 2008 helicopter crash in Iraq.
One died in Afghanistan in 2007, and another was killed while serving in Iraq in 2004.
Considering that thousands of Oklahoma National Guardsmen have served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the casualty numbers could easily be much higher.
Deering led the 45th during its last major
But by the time the 2,700 Oklahoma troops arrived, an increase in soldiers on the ground, called “the surge,” had begun to improve security in the country.
Overall casualties for the U.S. and its allies went from 961 lost in 2007 to 322 the following year.
Deering said many factors kept casualties down during that deployment.
“First of all, there was the mission,” Deering said. “Most of the soldiers involved in the 2008 mission to Iraq were supporting detainee operations and not involved in direct combat operations, as they are doing in Afghanistan.”
There were some smaller elements of the Guard involved in more dangerous missions, Deering said.
“But by that time, we were also beginning to feel the turn towards stability in Iraq as a result of the surge, even though it was a very dangerous place,” he said.
Conversely, Afghanistan is much more dangerous now than it was when the U.S. was focusing its military efforts more heavily in Iraq.
Casualties in Afghanistan have gone up every year since 2003. In 2010, 711 coalition troops were lost in Afghanistan, more than double the rate of casualties from two years
The Iowa National Guard unit, which Oklahoma's soldiers replaced, lost only four troops in its entire deployment. The 45th has been in Afghanistan less than two months and isn't scheduled to come home until early next year.
Kevin Mahoney served with Staff Sgt. Kirk A. Owen, 37, of Sapulpa, who was killed Tuesday in Afghanistan. Mahoney, 40, of Tulsa, retired from the Oklahoma National Guard in 2010. He said the soldiers still in Afghanistan will rely on their training and instincts while they try to deal with the sense of loss they are feeling.
“It shocked me when I read about Kirk because he was my squad leader,”
Mahoney said squad leaders and officers will be on the lookout for those having a hard time dealing with the deaths, but it will also bring the units closer together as the soldiers
“They've lost someone they've known for quite some time,” Mahoney said. “It affects their mind as far as future missions for themselves and their friends. But that's when you realize you are your brother's keeper.”
Mahoney never lost a fellow soldier in combat, but he did deal with death while he was in the active duty military before joining the Guard. He said seeing death up close is not something soldiers can truly train for.
“You don't see death on a daily basis,” he said. “I had a good buddy of mine commit suicide right in front of me when I was in the active duty military. It affected me for quite a while, and this wasn't even a wartime situation.”
Families need support
Deering said he spoke with the Guard's leadership in Afghanistan on Friday morning, and morale is holding up.
“The loss of one of their own exacts a price, but I will tell you that they cope,” Deering said. “They are resilient. When all the smoke clears, they do what they do for their buddies, their friends.
“They certainly mourn the loss of their fellow soldier and they will never forget them, but they also move ahead to ensure that the price paid was not in vain.”
Deering said a bigger worry is the mindset of family members. They don't know from one minute to the next what their loved ones are doing or whether they are safe.
“This, in and of itself, places a tremendous burden and additional stress on those left behind,” Deering said. “In some respects, a deployment has always been harder on the families left behind than the soldier.”
The Guard offers support services for families, and the military is doing all it can to help them, Deering said. But supporting family members goes beyond the military.
“A war zone is a very dangerous place, even in the best of circumstances,” Deering said. “During the days ahead, we must lean on one another and let the families know that we are there for them — our churches, our schools, and our communities. It's quite normal to worry, but together we will persevere.”
AT A GLANCE
Oklahoma National Guard deaths
• Sgt. Anthony Del Mar Peterson, 24, of Chelsea; in Afghanistan
• Staff Sgt. Kirk Avery Owen, 37, of Sapulpa; in Afghanistan
• 2nd Lt. Jared Ewy, 33, of Edmond; in Afghanistan
• Spc. Augustus J. Vicari, 22, of Broken Arrow; in Afghanistan
• Sgt. Daniel M. Eshbaugh, 43, of Norman; in Iraq
• Chief Warrant Officer Brady J. Rudolf, 37, of Oklahoma City; in Iraq
• Cpl. Michael E. Thompson, 23, of Harrah; in Iraq
Sgt. Buddy Hughie, 25, of Poteau; in Afghanistan
• Spc. Kyle A. Brinlee, 21, of Pryor; in Iraq