Georgia National Guard’s deployment to Afghanistan is a family affair

Mission includes twin brothers, fathers and sons and a married couple

Fraternal twins Matthew and Ryan McBride were born just 45 seconds apart and have remained close ever since. As infants, they held hands through the slats of their neighboring cribs and appeared to understand each other’s babble. Mathew pitched for the local baseball team. Ryan was his catcher. Ryan played center on their football team. Matthew was his quarterback.

Now they are heading off to war together. Both serve in the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade, which will deploy to Afghanistan next month. Before they leave, they will celebrate Christmas at their parents’ home in Statesboro.

The brigade’s planned nine-month deployment has become a family affair. Among the roughly 2,200 Guardsmen participating in the mission are at least two sets of fathers and sons, a married couple and another set of twin brothers.

This is not unique. The U.S. military allows relatives to serve in the same units, though it doesn’t keep track of how many are doing so. And while siblings like Matthew and Ryan may feel at ease deploying together, that can multiply their loved ones’ fears. Just ask Matthew and Ryan’s mother, Sandra. She worries how Afghanistan’s deadly battlefield could change them.

“I just pray they come back to us with sound minds, just mentally healthy,” she said. Sandra also wonders how President Donald Trump’s decision to pull roughly half of all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan could affect her sons’ brigade. “When you are taking that many out, how safe are we?”

Further, Sandra worries her twins, who have continued to live together after leaving home, could be separated in Afghanistan. Although Matthew and Ryan are in the same artillery battalion, they are assigned to different batteries.

Related: Georgia troops heading to Afghanistan as Trump orders drawdown

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Both law enforcement officers, Matthew and Ryan grew up in Statesboro. They joined the Guard while attending Southeast Bulloch High School so they could get help paying for college. And now they are cannon crew members in separate batteries of the Savannah-based 1st Battalion of the 118th Field Artillery Regiment. They will turn 23 together next month in eastern Afghanistan.

“We are super close,” said Matthew, a sergeant in the Guard and a Bulloch County sheriff’s deputy. “That is my best friend right there, for sure.”

Ryan, a specialist in the Guard and a campus policeman at Georgia Southern University, feels the same way: “We are very close, ever since birth. We have done pretty much everything together all throughout our lives. Matt is definitely my best friend.”

Related: Georgia troops get training to counter insider threats in Afghanistan

Rabbit and Smiley

Sandra and husband Chris recently gathered in their Statesboro home beside their Christmas tree — decorated with teddy bear ornaments bearing their sons’ names — and reminisced. Behind them, green and red Christmas stockings hung from their mantel for Ryan, Matthew and their 19-year-old brother, Steven.

Their parents sorted through baby photos of them. In one, Ryan and Matthew are wearing matching red and blue onesies emblazoned with sailboats. In another, they have on identical light blue bowties and plaid shorts.

Ryan, they said, is the adventurous risk-taker, the one who enjoys taking things apart so he can figure them out. Because he is so energetic, he goes by the nickname “Rabbit.” Ryan dreams about going to work for the FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration.

The oldest of the twins, Matthew is more reserved and cautious. As a young boy, his parents said, he was guarded around strangers. Deeply attached to Ryan, he goes by the nickname “Smiley” because he grins so often. Matthew wants to eventually become an airplane mechanic in the U.S. Air Force.

Their parents’ trust in their sons — they raised them to be honest, decent and hard-working — and their Christian faith help them cope with their deployment.

“We are praying about it and honestly trusting in God and believing that he is going to take care of them,” said Sandra, who retired from the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, which helps disabled people.

Chris feels at peace knowing his sons joined the Guard understanding such a deployment could happen.

“I just keep the thought in the forefront of my mind that: They are going over. They are going to perform their duty and they are going to come back home,” said Chris, a retired Georgia Southern University police lieutenant who works as an investigator for the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX. “If something else happens between now and then, I will cross that bridge then. But for right now, I am not even thinking about that. I don’t want to think about it.”

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Their sons’ impending deployment became more real to them last month when Ryan and Matthew pulled up outside their house with a trailer full of their belongings packed in plastic bins. Just off Georgia Highway 24 in the countryside outside of Statesboro, their parents’ home will serve as storage for them while they are gone.

Chris: “It kind of hit me a little bit that day.”

“This is real,” Sandra said. “This is happening.”

Firing the big guns

When they arrive next month in Afghanistan, Ryan and Matthew’s battalion will serve as one the few artillery units supporting the U.S. troops there.

The twins will work on cannon crews ready to fire on insurgents, including any who attack U.S. troops with mortars and rockets. Crowded and complex, the battlefield in Afghanistan features Taliban, Islamic State and Haqqani network fighters. Fourteen U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year.

Ryan visited his brother’s battery as it drilled in a remote field at Fort Stewart earlier this month. He watched as Matthew, often smiling, of course, fired his crew’s howitzer. The sharp sounds of the explosions radiated through the cannoneers’ bodies.

Operating the cannon involves up to nine crewmen following a series of steps and verbal commands for adjusting the howitzer’s aim, loading it and then firing it. The Georgian cannon crews test fired about 1,000 rounds during their training at Fort Stewart, striving to get in sync before they head overseas.

During a break, the troops good-naturedly ribbed each other about their physical fitness. They discussed the merits of meatloaf. (Ryan hates it. Matthew loves it.) They debated which brother is funnier. There was no consensus among their fellow artillerymen. But all of them burst into laughter when they recalled Ryan shaking up a can of Dr Pepper and handing it to a higher-ranking soldier before watching it spray him in the face.

Ryan and Matthew have traveled outside the United States only once before and that was for a cruise to the Bahamas. To them, the cruise didn’t count as a harrowing adventure.

“It’s great that I have my twin and my best friend going with me,” Ryan said. “I’m just excited that we both get to experience this opportunity together.”

He and Matthew, meanwhile, are sensitive to their parents’ concerns.

“We try not to go into a lot of detail about what is going on because my mom — she is a worrier. And we don’t want to freak her out too much,” Matthew said. “But she is excited for us. This is a good opportunity for us to get a lot of experience – and experience things that we never have before.”

Lt. Col. Rodney Tatum Jr., their battalion’s commander, quietly observed his men from the sidelines at Fort Stewart as they practiced. Ryan and Matthew’s parents, he said, should be proud.

“They are always smiling. They are eager to learn. They have great attitudes, whether we are in the field or in garrison training,” he said. “They take their jobs seriously. They are always very professional.”

Christmas and then Afghanistan

Under gray skies threatening rain last Friday, Chris and Sandra gazed at Matthew as he marched in a send-off ceremony with his battery through downtown Springfield. Led by a city police car, the troops chanted “Alpha,” naming their battery. Matthew gave his mother one of his signature high-wattage smiles as she called out to him. His church pastor and nearly 20 of his friends watched from the side of the road.

The troops eventually came to a stop in front of the Effingham County courthouse. Springfield Mayor Barton Alderman told them he would pray for their safety. The father of a fellow soldier from their battalion read a poem about virtue, telling them “I expect every one of you to come back because this is where you belong.” A little girl movingly sang the national anthem.

The crowd wiped away tears as the troops marched to their armory. Sandra and Chris followed alongside them. Reuniting at the armory with Ryan and Steven, the family posed for photos, stepped inside for a prayer and then sat down for a meal.

Along with their fellow troops, the twins were given a week of holiday leave this month ahead of their deployment. On Christmas, the family will play Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, watch holiday movies and visit relatives. And Sandra and Chris will savor their time with their sons before Smiley and Rabbit head off to war.