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Family, interrupted

POMARIA -- The boy in the back seat heard those lyrics to Darryl Worley's "I Just Came Back from a War."

He asked his mother, Kim Griffith, to change the channel.

"I started watching him in the rearview mirror, and I could tell it was something he didn't like to listen to," she said.

Griffith switched the dial to another radio station.

A few days later, the same song played again. This time, Griffith was alone in the van. She listened closely.

And she understood why her 14-year-old son, Timothy, did not want to hear it.

War could change the family. HOME IN JULY -- 2008

The war in Afghanistan hit the Griffith home in January, when Sgt. 1st Class Todd Griffith left for three months of training at Camp Shelby, Miss., with the 218th Combat Brigade Team.

Griffith is one of 1,800 S.C. National Guard soldiers going to Afghanistan. There, the U.S. military fights the Taliban, hunts for Osama bin Laden and tries to restore order to a war-torn country.

In two days, Griffith comes home to South Carolina for a 10-day break. Then, later this month, he is expected to leave for Afghanistan.

His deployment orders say he will be back in July 2008.

These past three months without Todd, while he has been training in Mississippi, have given his family a glimpse of what the next 14 months without him will be like.

Kim will spend hours shuttling Timothy and his 9-year-old sister, Katherine, between band practice, Girl Scouts meetings and orthodontist appointments. She'll find ways to make birthdays and holidays fun even though a key celebrant is missing.

And at night, when the kids are asleep and the lights are out, Kim will struggle with her own loneliness and worry.

'WE CAN'T LOOK IN THEIR EYES'

The Griffiths are not the only S.C. family dealing with the long deployment. With 1,800 soldiers leaving, 1,799 other families are experiencing the torrent of emotions that come when a soldier leaves for combat.

Each family will face its own set of challenges.

Deployments bring all sorts of new pressures, whether it's figuring out who fixes a broken toilet or choosing a new doctor because the family now is covered by military health insurance, said Michele Canchola, family readiness group coordinator for the S.C. National Guard.

Add fears about death or injury, and the stress mounts.

"We even worry about them at Camp Shelby," Canchola said of the Guard members now training there. "We know they're getting taken care of, but we can't look in their eyes."

The military has learned that deployments have a different impact on Guard families from those of active-duty troops.

While the Guard has been called to federal duty more frequently since 9/11, Guard families are not as used to the deployments as active-duty families, Canchola said.

"Guard families do not have that built-in system found on a military installation, where everyone is in the same tank," she said.

Also, 18-month Guard call-ups take soldiers away from home longer than the yearlong deployments of active-duty troops, said Michelle Joyner, spokesman for the National Military Families Association.

"Emotionally, it's difficult when you start thinking of two birthdays missed, two Christmases missed, two anniversaries," Joyner said.

'YOU CAN'T PUT YOUR LIFE ON HOLD'

The Guard's Afghan deployment comes on the heels of a particularly tough time for the Griffiths.

Doctors diagnosed Kim Griffith with breast cancer in April 2006. She underwent a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. When Todd left in January, Kim still was wearing a wig because treatment had made her hair fall out. Also, red marks from the harsh radiation could be seen on her skin.

Now, the cancer is gone, but Kim must be closely monitored for a recurrence.

Then, there is Katherine, who has cerebral palsy. The disease doesn't slow down the blond girl, who enjoys playing with animals and never hesitates to say her mind.

This summer, she will have surgery at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville, where doctors will build arches into her feet.

It's best for Katherine to have surgery in the summer so she won't miss school. Since Todd will be gone until midway through 2008, it would be another three years if Katherine waited until her father was home to have the

THE ROAD TO AFGHANISTAN

When the S.C. National Guard's 218th Combat Brigade Team goes to Afghanistan this spring, it will be the largest single deployment of S.C.

troops since World War II.

COMING MONDAY

A look at the final training in Mississippi of the S.C. National Guard members who soon will be going to Afghanistan.

surgery.

"I could put it off for another year or two," Kim said. "But the older she gets, the harder it will be on her.

"You can't put your life on hold. Things at home have to keep on going."

TRYING TO BE STRONG

Kim's strategy for coping thus far has been to stay busy.

Days begin at 5:30 a.m., when everybody gets up for work and school.

Kim drops off the children at school and then drives to work at the Newberry County Public Works Department, where she is a recycling technician.

The children stay in after-school programs until Kim gets off work at 5 p.m. and makes the rounds to pick them up.

They often don't get home until after dark because of after-school activities. They almost always eat dinner out.

Todd normally is the family cook. When home, he works third shift at Louis Rich's processing plant. He picks up the kids from school and has supper ready when Kim gets home from work.

Now, Kim is the lone chauffeur, driving at least 40 miles a day for the family.

On Monday nights, Timothy goes to

2006

August: Guard's 218th Combat Brigade Team is alerted it might be deployed. Leaders say they expect the unit, headquartered in Newberry, to be sent to Afghanistan to train Afghan forces who are fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida elements.

November: 218th formally told 1,800 of its soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan

Newberry, where he rehearses for his role in the play "Grease." Timothy also keeps statistics for the Mid-Carolina High School boys' soccer team and plays trumpet in the school's marching band.

Two weeks ago, he auditioned for a spot in the Governor's School for the Arts this summer.

The same week, the family traveled to Greenwood and Greenville so Katherine could be mistress of ceremony at the Shrine Circus.

"Katherine's like me," Kim said. "As long as she's going and busy, she's all right and doesn't think about it. When she slows down, it bothers her."

At bedtime, Katherine and her mother talk about Todd.

As for Timothy, Kim said he tries to be strong. He has become extra protective of his sister.

Normally a B student, Timothy's grades have slipped this semester. Kim suspects his father's deployment caused a distraction.

"They'll pull up," she said. "I'll get a little firm, and he'll knuckle down."

'IT'S CHILLY AND IT'S A MOODY DAY'

The Griffiths live down a gravel road in rural Newberry County in an old farmhouse that once belonged to Kim's grandparents.

Outside, dogs, cats, turkeys and chickens poke around the yard. It's not unusual for Little Tom, a turkey, to waddle onto the porch, peep through the front screen door of the house and announce his presence with a "gobble, gobble, gobble."

Signs of Todd are everywhere, from his pickup truck in the driveway to a banner with a single blue star hanging in a front window.

Some days, Kim feels Todd's absence worse than others.

On a cold Thursday in late March, she said the longing had been with her all day. Todd hadn't called home in almost three days.

"I don't know if it's because it's chilly and it's a moody day," she said. "I don't know."

On this night, a lamp cast a warm glow in the family living room as Kim and the children told stories.

They laughed about the time Todd jumped on the trampoline, only to crash into the ground when its well-worn springs gave out. It's a funny story now, but it wasn't so hilarious then, Kim said.

"We laughed for a minute -- until he didn't get up and we thought we'd have to call an ambulance."

Katherine giggles about her daddy talking to the turkeys. Timothy makes plans for an early 15th birthday celebration when his dad is home later this week.

Outside, yellow ribbons flutter from the branches of a spindly tree in the front yard. Each ribbon represents a month that Todd will be away.

As one month passes into the next, Kim, Timothy and Katherine pull one ribbon from the branches, counting the months until Todd will be home from Afghanistan.

"I thought it would be something good for us to do together," Kim said.

Already, three ribbons have come down. There are 15 to go.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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