Ryan Rawl and J.D. Meador died on the same day, in a crowded market thousands of miles from the community that watched them grow from youngsters to soldiers in the S.C. National Guard.
Their deaths left the people of Lexington sobbing and wondering when the dying will end. Rawl and Meador were killed Wednesday while working at a military checkpoint in Afghanistan. The deaths are among at least seven involving Lexington-area soldiers in the Middle East during the past nine years.
“It’s just a tragedy that this small community has lost so many kids,’’ said Otis Rawl, a Lexington native who is not related to Ryan Rawl but played football with his father. “This is preying on people’s minds here. You go out and see people and you don’t really know what to say at a loss like that.’’
Rawl and Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre said they’ve encountered a steady stream of comments in town as news of the deaths began to spread this week.
“It seems to me we’ve borne more than our fair share of tragedy in this war,” the mayor said, noting that Lexington is “a hotbed of patriotism” with a high level of support for the military.
At least 14 civilians were killed in the suicide bombing, which occurred in the town of Khost. The bodies of the three South Carolina Guardsmen, including a soldier from Easley, will be returned to the state early next week, with funeral arrangements to follow. At least 35 others were injured, including five from the S.C. National Guard.
State Adjutant General Robert Livingston said the five S.C. National Guard soldiers injured in the suicide bombing in Afghanistan are in critical but stable condition with shrapnel wounds and broken bones.
Livingston said several amputations have been performed. He did not name those who were injured, but a Guard spokesman said two are from the Midlands, two from the Lowcountry and one from the Upstate. The two Midlands residents are from Lexington County.
Speaking at a news conference in Columbia, Livingston said the deaths and injuries occurred as the Palmetto State soldiers were teaching Afghani security forces how to operate a checkpoint in Khost. While the S.C. soldiers were part of a security team that previously had success spotting suicide bombers, in this case a huge crowd near the checkpoint made it difficult, he said.
“Most of the marketplaces are not quite this robust, and so detection was very difficult and detonation was very devastating,’’ Livingston told reporters.
Livingston said the blast was large enough to affect a wide area of people. But the impact of the explosion extends beyond Afghanistan, Lexington-area residents said.
Otis Rawl said he remembers both Meador and Ryan Rawl as youngsters, growing up playing youth baseball or wrestling at Lexington High School.
Ryan Rawl, who was a deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, also was a Lexington football player in the late 1990s. His dad had played for the Wildcats a generation before him. A small fullback, he was known for his toughness and work ethic, friends said.
Though six years apart in age, Ryan Rawl and John David Meador had similar interests and family histories, acquaintances said. Rawl and Meador leave behind wives and young children. Each graduated from Lexington High.
Brooke Avis Box, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Meador, said the 36-year-old Meador and Rawl, 30, had become good friends while serving in the National Guard. She spoke with Meador by satellite telephone last weekend
During that conversation, Meador told her he wanted to get home to see his wife and kids, then coach baseball in the Irmo area. Three days later, Meador was dead. Her Facebook page was full of messages celebrating Meador’s life.
“I had a lot of sadness and I was really angry,’’ Box said. “I’m sad for his wife, his family. It’s really hard.’’
Now an Upstate resident, Box said military service is ingrained in the Lexington community west of Columbia. But that doesn’t make the deaths any easier.
“We are patriots,’’ she said. “We believe in God and country. But war is an ugly thing. When you lose somebody you love and care about, it seems very senseless. To think of J.D., one of the bravest people I know, dying at the hand of a coward, makes me sick to my stomach.’’
Statewide, Wednesday was the deadliest single day in Afghanistan for the S.C. National Guard, which has deployed more than 12,000 troops there since the war began in 2001. Until this week, the most recent combat fatalities were in October 2010, including one soldier from Lexington. Wednesday’s casualties were the first in 2012.
Sixteen members of the S.C. National Guard have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. South Carolina has about 1,500 National Guardsmen in combat areas, a number that is expected to swell to 2,500 by the end of July, Adjutant General Livingston said .
Gov. Nikki Haley, also at Friday’s press briefing, said she was personally affected by the deaths because she had visited with the soldiers’ unit and their families before the soldiers left for the Middle East in August.
“These were fathers. These were husbands. These were sons. And they were heroes,” Haley said. “What I will ask for the people of this state to do is what they have always done, which is to wrap your arms around these families and remember to thank these soldiers each and every day.’’
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin asked that flags on all city buildings be flown at half-staff Friday in memory of the three soldiers who died.
“These men are heroes and we ask that all the people of Columbia keep them and their families in our thoughts and prayers through this difficult time.”
Staff Writer Tim Flach also contributed to this story.