It was early afternoon on June 20, 2012. U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ryan D. Rawl was commanding a South Carolina National Guard military police platoon operating a checkpoint in a crowded market in Khost City, Afghanistan, about 5 miles from the border with Pakistan.
Khost is a gateway city for insurgents and weapons moving into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Rawl’s 133rd Military Police Company, based in Timmonsville, was fingerprinting and conducting retina scans on local residents, looking for insurgents and searching for explosives and weapons. Their job was to keep those weapons and enemy insurgents from hurting U.S. and allied soldiers fighting behind them in the interior of the country.
During the search, a man in the crowd detonated a suicide vest packed with small ball bearings. The horrific blast killed Rawl, 30, of Lexington, Sgt. John D. Meador II, 36, of Columbia, and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew B. Thomas, 30, of Travelers Rest. Five other S.C. Guard soldiers were wounded. Twenty-one Afghans were killed and scores more wounded.
“There was a weird smell, like burning flesh,” said Sgt. Jesse McCoy of Sumter, who arrived about five minutes after the blast. “There were ball bearings embedded everywhere – in walls and poles and people. The only thing you could see of the bomber was two legs laying in the ditch. There was blood and gear everywhere.”
June 20, 2012, was the deadliest day for the S.C. National Guard since the Korean War. It brought to 16 the number of S.C. Guard soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, 64 members of the U.S. military with South Carolina ties have died in Iraq; 48 have died in Afghanistan.
With all combat troops set to leave Afghanistan by December, the families of the dead, the maimed and emotionally scarred are left to deal with the aftermath. This could be the last wartime Memorial Day in the 13 years of constant war since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
“We hurt every day,” said Diane Rawl, Ryan Rawl’s mother. “Nights are the worst. But he was over there fighting the bad guys so we wouldn’t have to fight them over here. And he died doing what he loved.”
Diane and Stanley Rawl’s house on Cedar Creek Road near Pelion is filled with mementos of their son’s life: photographs of Ryan with wife, Katherine, and two young children, Callie and Caleb; a photograph of Ryan wrestling at Lexington High School; a portrait of him and his brother, Stan, as cadets at The Citadel; a plaque honoring him as 2009 deputy of the year with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department; even a $1,500 ornamental rifle presented to them after his death by the residents of tiny Pelion, the vast majority of whom the Rawls, new to the area, didn’t know at the time.
But the most poignant item is a brass compass mounted in a small glass case. The family gave the compass to Ryan when he was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of 9/11. On the back is engraved: “May you always find your way home.”
Ryan Rawl is buried 4 miles away in the small graveyard of the Mt. Hermon Baptist Church.
‘HE WAS A LEADER’
Rawl was born in Columbia on April 16, 1982, and grew up with his parents and brother on Rawl Road in Lexington, named after Ryan’s great-grandfather.
He was a happy kid, prone to practical jokes and adoring of his older brother, Stan. He was a country boy who liked to hunt and play baseball. As he grew into a young man, he was a little on the small side – 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 152 pounds – but darkly handsome and popular with the girls. He was laid-back, friends and family said, and sometimes generous to a fault.
It was at Lexington High School that his true qualities began to emerge. He wasn’t the best player on the football field or the wrestling mat, but he was elected captain of the wrestling team, and was known as an undersized but big-hearted linebacker on the football team.
“He was vocal, positive, goal-driven and really focused on the team,” said his wrestling coach, Derek Stroebel. “He never got in trouble, ever. When he needed to be stern, he would be. But he would always be positive. He was a leader.”
“His attitude was infectious,” said Brian Dawson, a state champion wrestler and Ryan’s best friend from pee wee football through high school graduation in 2000 and beyond. “If you needed help, he would help you. If you were acting out, he would get on you. He was a good man.”
“That translated perfectly to his career with the sheriff’s department and the military,” Stroebel said.
Ryan was an avid Gamecock fan and contemplated attending the University of South Carolina. But his brother had enrolled at The Citadel three years earlier, and the tug of sibling rivalry persuaded him to sign up as a “knob” – or freshman – at South Carolina’s military academy.
“I would have ragged him the rest of my life about going to Carolina,” Stan said from his home, located a couple of hundred yards from his parents’ on the Rawl farm.
With Stan a senior and Ryan a freshman, the two brothers didn’t interact very much at The Citadel. Stan said he went out of his way not to try to mitigate the strict treatment – some would call it hazing – knobs had to endure at the hands of upperclassmen. Ryan embraced the discipline.
“He loved it,” Stan said. “He liked the structure. He found his niche. It was a natural path for him.”
‘PROUD OF YOU FOR JOINING’
On Jan. 1, 2005, after graduating from The Citadel with a degree in criminal justice, Rawl joined the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. He attended the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy and graduated on May 6, 2005. He was the flag bearer for Class No. 472.
His goal was to eventually become a U.S. Marshal, his mother said.
Rawl went to work as a patrol officer in Region 6, the Blythewood area of Richland County. There, he continued to be a prankster, and his supervisor, Capt. Roxanne Meetze, was often the butt of the jokes.
“Nobody goes in my office without my permission, ever,” Meetze said.
But after Rawl left for National Guard boot camp, Meetze saw that one of her pictures was crooked on the wall of her office. She took it down. On the back was a note from Rawl. It read: “Miss me yet?”
After a short stint in a patrol car, Rawl requested a change. He wanted to become a school resource officer and work with kids, particularly those who faced challenges. He was assigned to Crayton Middle School in Forest Acres.
“He wasn’t about cops and robbers,” Sheriff Leon Lott said. “He was about helping people.”
David Adams, who trained Rawl as a school resource officer, said Rawl, with a childlike sense of humor and the sensibilities of a loving father, was a natural with the kids.
“It takes some adjusting,” he said. “There’s a certain compassion in working with juveniles. Ryan had it.”
One of those children was Alexia Malone, then 15, now a 17-year-old junior at A.C. Flora High School. She was new to Crayton, estranged from her father, and now lives with her grandparents in Lower Richland.
“A lot of people were mean to me and he was the one person that I could look to that kept me in the right direction, away from bad things,” she said. “He changed my life. He was a father figure. It hurt when I heard he passed away. It hurt so much I couldn’t go to the funeral.”
A year after he joined the force, Rawl submitted a letter to Lott saying he wanted to join the S.C. National Guard.
“I feel that it is my duty to serve my country,” it read. “I would greatly appreciate you honoring my request.”
“OK,” Lott wrote at the bottom of the letter. “Proud of you for joining.”
‘PRAY FOR MY MEN’
Rawl wasn’t in the 133rd when it was scheduled for deployment. He was in the 132nd Military Police Company, based in West Columbia. But when a vacancy for a lieutenant came open in the 133rd, Rawl worked hard to get the job.
“I had a lieutenant who didn’t meet the requirements to go,” said Capt. Chad Bryant, Rawl’s company commander. “Ryan called and asked if there was any way possible for him to go. He was the most eager and wanted it the most. He was the best lieutenant for the job.”
Meador also volunteered for the deployment, re-enlisting in the Guard after 10 years as a civilian, specifically to be deployed, Bryant said. Thomas had been promoted and turned down a transfer to a more prestigious job to be deployed with his men.
“Thomas said, ‘These are my men. I trained them and I am going with them,’” Bryant said. “None of those three had to be there.”
At a going-away party at the Rawl home just before Ryan left, a minister offered a prayer for his safety.
“Don’t pray for me,” Ryan said. “Pray for my men.”
In Afghanistan, Rawl earned a reputation as a soldiers’ officer, befriending his men and staying with them during difficult duty. He also was adept at interacting with tribal and town leaders in Khost – a vital talent in a military police officer.
The suicide bombing happened just two months before the company was slated to come home, and was preceded by a large and brutal attack on the region’s main forward operating base a half-hour drive outside of Khost City, called Camp Salerno. On June 1, Taliban insurgents drove a vehicle packed with an estimated 1,500 pounds of explosives through the camp wall and exploded it. More than a dozen suicide bombers wearing explosive vests followed through the breach.
All of the attackers were killed. Two American soldiers died, three dozen suffered serious wounds and more than 100 U.S. troops received minor wounds.
“The intel was that that attack was planned in our city,” Bryant said. “I was tasked with trying to interrupt the insurgent network at that location. Part of that plan was periodically setting up checkpoints and gathering intelligence – disrupt the enemy’s operations. The soldiers were successful in that and were attacked on the 20th.”
Close to coming home
The company was within its last 100 days of deployment – they were due to come home in August. It’s a time when soldiers rotating back to the States are warned to not become complacent. Some of the men and women in Rawl’s platoon were conducting retina scans and fingerprinting of local residents in the crowded market. Others were guarding the perimeter in six highly armored patrol vehicles called MRAPs. Still others were searching vehicles.
Rawl, Meador, Thomas and a medic, A.J. Durham, were standing near the line of civilians being identified, supervising the operation and providing more security on foot.
Spc. Scott Krawczyk of Greenville, a driver/gunner was sitting in the turret of one of the MRAPs. He said Rawl, as an officer, didn’t have to be at the front of the operation that day.
“His choice was to be up with us,” Krawczyk said. “I was his driver. And nine times out of 10, we would go on patrol.”
“Nobody was going to make him go,” Bryant said. “But his platoon didn’t roll without him.”
The details of the bombing are muddy. “You’ll get a little different story from everyone who was there,” Bryant said.
Medic Durham said he never saw the suicide bomber. He was joking around with a line of civilians who were squatting against a wall in front of him, waiting to be identified and recorded.
“I looked around at Meador and we smiled at each other,” he said. “Then everything went black and I heard a muffled ‘wooooof.’ When I woke up, all those people – men, women and children – were laying on their sides in pieces.”
Rawl, Meador and Thomas were dead. Durham and four others were severely injured.
Durham spent seven months in Walter Reed Medical Center with severe injuries to his legs, groin and arm. He was peppered with small ball bearings. He underwent 72 procedures on his leg and today is healthy and fit, but scarred.
“I want to go back again,” he said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep soldiers safe. I can do a better job because of my experience.”
The unit held a brief memorial service in their base. The next day, they went out on patrol again.
Bryant said that losing the three men “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. The second hardest thing was telling the men to go back out the next day. But if we failed to get out there, those soldiers died in vain. We continued to patrol every day until we came home. And we patrolled with a renewed sense of energy and focus.”
‘A heart ripping in two’
Hours after the bombing, on a Wednesday evening, Stanley Rawl, Ryan’s father, was mowing hay in a front field when Ryan’s wife, Katherine, came driving up the family’s half-mile-long driveway.
She picked Stanley up and drove up the long driveway. Stan, Ryan’s brother, was planting day lilies in the front yard. Diane, Ryan’s mother, was in the house, writing an email to Ryan. They rushed to meet the car, sensing something was wrong.
When Diane saw the look on Katherine’s face, “in my mind I thought Ryan was hurt,” Diane said. “I said, ‘He’s not dead ’ She just shook her head. All three of us hit the ground.
“In the Bible it mentions wailing,” she said. “Now I know what wailing is. It comes from the gut and is the sound of a heart ripping in two.”
Word had quickly spread of what had happened. That night, a neighbor showed up at the Rawl house and asked if he could finish baling the hay in the front field. Stanley said yes. The next morning, six or seven other neighbors showed up on their tractors. By the end of the day, the entire field had been “raked, stacked and put in the barn,” Stanley said. “About 700 or 800 bales. It was all done.”
Other neighbors brought food. Another mowed the lawn. A man from the Rawls’ church came every morning and made tea and coffee, and returned in the evenings to take the out the trash – every day for 10 days.
The Rawls had only lived in the area for five years. Some of the people who came were friends. Others were just acquaintances, but wanted to help.
“They’re country people,” Stanley said. “That’s what they do. Everything we needed, they brought to us.”
When the Rawl family returned from Dover, Del., where they received Ryan’s body, neighbors had lined the entire half-mile drive from Cedar Creek Road to the Rawl home with American flags.
“They wanted to show us respect,” Stanley said.
‘Dreams are all gone’
Large crowds filled the Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington for Ryan’s funeral. Hundreds of people lined the streets and roads from Lexington to Pelion saluting Ryan and waving flags and signs as his coffin passed by on a horse-drawn caisson from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. The procession included hundreds of police officers and soldiers. It was both a military funeral and a law enforcement funeral.
Dignitaries visited the family. Resolutions honoring Ryan were passed by government bodies. Gifts were sent from across the country, including a portrait painted by a West Coast man from a photograph.
Then, slowly, the public attention passed. And the depth of grief set in permanently.
Brother Stan remembers that they planned to build a cabin near a pond on the farm after Ryan’s return for gatherings with family and friends. Ryan was going to buy a new truck. He wanted to build a house on the farm.
“That’s all he talked about,” Stan said. “Those were our dreams. Now, they are all gone.”
Although much of the public acknowledgement of Ryan’s sacrifice has gone away, the Rawls continued to be served by the Army’s Casualty Assistance Center at Fort Jackson, which provides assistance on everything from grief management to finances, and its Survivor Outreach Service at Guard Headquarters on Shop Road, which holds events – often without any government funding – to bring families of decreased soldiers together.
“It’s a continuum of care,” said Beth Warren, the Army’s survivor outreach services coordinator in Columbia. “We are able connect them with a network of people who understand.”
His name, memory live on
The Rawl family also is invited to all Richland County Sheriff’s Department functions.
“And that is something that is not going to stop,” Sheriff Lott said. “They are part of our family.”
And they remain in the hearts of the Guard.
“We don’t forget,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the state’s adjutant general. “We don’t forget the person. We don’t forget the story. And we don’t forget what they did for us. We have 16 stories like that.”
Durham married his wife, Kayla, at the Rawl home. Krawczyk named his daughter Ryan Blakely. There have been five babies named after him.
Ryan Rawl’s name adorns a Guard training center. His picture is in the lobby of sheriff’s department headquarters. The department’s Region Six station is named after him. There is a Citadel scholarship in his name, among many other tributes.
The Rawls attend most of the events they are invited to, despite the heart-wrenching memories. And they are willing to talk publicly about it.
“You’re not bringing something up that’s not always there,” Stanley said. “We’re proud of him. We miss him. It would be a disservice to him if we didn’t carry on his name.”
Said Diane, “The last thing a mother wants is for her child to be forgotten.”