Last week, SC National Guard Sgt. Mark Olinski attended the emotional funeral for First Lt. Ryan Rawl – his onetime training battle buddy who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
Now it’s Olinski’s turn to head overseas.
The electrical engineer from Belton is traveling to Kosovo with 39 other military policemen from the West Columbia-based 132nd Military Police Company to spend a year aiding the ongoing multi-national peacekeeping mission in the region that was once part of Yugoslavia.
“It was kind of hard, I’m not going to lie about it,” Olinski said about learning of Rawl’s death late last month. “Any place where I go to could turn into something bad. I just try to keep my mind on my Ps and Qs. That’s what I do since I am a cop.”
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The 132nd was among four SC National Guard units sending off 500 soldiers to Kosovo on Sunday.
While not a recent hotbed for violence like Afghanistan, Kosovo is not like patrolling the streets in Lexington County. The region that broke away from Serbia in 1999 is rife with ethnic tensions that could heighten when Kosovo becomes a sovereign state in September.
Olinski’s wife, Linda, said she was relieved her husband was not going to central Asia: “But there was anxiety because I knew nothing about Kosovo. I Googled it. I learned about it. Still not real happy about it but it’s not Afghanistan.”
Many members deploying for Kosovo knew the three guardsmen from the Timmonsville-based 133rd Military Police Company killed in Afghanistan. Another five were injured in the June 20 blast in the Khost Province.
Soon after news reached home, Lt. Chris Cockrell, who is leading the 132nd brigade headed to Europe, gathered the deploying soldiers to talk about the attack.
“We just have to stay positive and support each other,” Spc. Patrick Morris of Cayce said of the message his unit received. “We talked about staying safe but how we can’t let this affect our mission.”
Morris said the military policemen were told to share their emotions about the attack and find ways to release any anxiety and stress. Morris said he finds comfort in listening to country music.
“We just need to keep talking with our fellow soldiers,” he said.
And the families back home will communicate, too. Holly Miles, wife of Sgt. William Miles, said she will try not to worry by setting up regular times to talk with her husband.
Sgt. Miles was a former member of the 133rd, and they also attended Rawl’s funeral last week. On the car ride home to Elgin, the parents of a 2-year-old discussed how to handle their affairs if something happened in Kosovo.
“That is more so real,” Holly Miles said of the funeral. “But he’s very positive and said, ‘I’ll be OK. We’ll stay in contact. Don’t worry.’ ”
Soldiers talked about how a year of training has readied them to handle the long-simmering hostilities between Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo.
Col. Waymon Storey, commander of the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, told the crowd gathered at the unit’s deployment ceremony Sunday how much the people of Kosovo accomplished since formally declaring independence in 2008 but also how they have seen “unbelievable atrocities.”
“We want to give them the life we have here,” he said.
The soldiers heading to Kosovo volunteered for the mission, which relatives said they accepted in an age of U.S. troops dotting the globe. Jennie Hyatt, an Air Force veteran from Augusta, looked at her son heading to his first deployment: “You just try to be prepared first and let God take care of the rest.”
Sgt. Olinski – who at 43 is the second-oldest among the volunteers in the 132nd going to Kosovo – is heading out for a second time. He deployed to Norway in the late 1980s during an eight-year stint in the Marines.
His wife said his departure is different this time. They were more comfortable talking about what to do about their finances, what benefits are available and his funeral requests if he is killed.
“We talk about everything, because if he died, there’s no chance to talk about anything,” Linda Olinski said.
And unlike 25 years ago, their five kids are older and better able to support the family during his deployment, though that did not prevent Linda Olinski from dealing with a rash of mishaps on her husband’s first day of deployment training in Charleston last year. The lawn mower broke, a large stack of lumber fell from a shelf in the shed, and their dog, Jiggles, got on the table and drank her entire cup of coffee.
“I called him up and said, ‘Yeah, you’re gone,’ ” Linda Olinski said. “You what you need to do and it works out. I’m proud of my husband. I’m proud that he’s in the Army.”
Linda Olinski also was proud when she saw all the people lined up along U.S. 378 in Lexington holding American flags and signs for Rawl’s funeral procession. For her, the outpouring turned a solemn occasion into testimonial to the sacrifice all armed service members and their families.
“It made me feel that my husband is appreciated,” she said. “It was a way of reaffirming pride for everyone.”