Chris and Lori Peters of Woodstock find solace at their Lutheran church — and at the local gun range — as they anxiously watch their youngest son, Dalton, head off to war for the first time.
In Forsyth, Rickey Gulley relies on the hardened shell he has formed around himself amid the rigors of four overseas deployments. And Atlanta area resident Rydell Tomas keeps any nervousness at bay by looking deep into the future to when his photography career will really take off.
Rydell, Rickey and Dalton are among about 2,200 Georgia National Guardsmen from across the state who will deploy with the 48th Brigade to Afghanistan in the coming months. Some could leave for their nine-month mission this year, while others will depart next year. The Georgians will train Afghanistan’s police and troops in a restive area near the Pakistan border. It’s not unfamiliar territory. They carried out a similar training mission in the same region eight years ago.
But a lot has changed since the Guardsmen were there.
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They will return to a war that is now in its 17th year, the longest war in American history. And they will have less company when they get there. The United States had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010. Now that number is about 14,000.
They will return to a violent country where many of their fellow troops have fallen. More than 2,100 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, according iCasualties.org, an online database. Of them, eight were part of the 48th Brigade.
They will return to a part of the country where terrorists are massacring civilians in sensational attacks. On Sunday in the eastern city of Jalalabad, for example, a suicide bomber struck a group of Afghan Sikhs and Hindus arriving to meet with President Ashraf Ghani, killing at least 19 people. Outside that same city last month, an explosion killed dozens of people who were celebrating a cease-fire between the Afghan government and the Taliban. An offshoot of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Amid another cease-fire four days later, the Taliban killed 30 Afghan soldiers and overran two outposts in the northwest part of the country.
The U.S. military’s strategy in Afghanistan, meanwhile, has changed since the Georgia Guardsmen left in 2010. Before he became president, Donald Trump repeatedly called for America to pull its troops out, blasting the campaign as a “total disaster” and a “complete waste.” He switched gears after he moved into the White House and announced a new open-ended commitment to the country, one guided by “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables.”
The Trump administration has since boosted troop levels and given U.S. military commanders expanded authority to target enemies in Afghanistan. The goal is to prevent the country from becoming a haven for terrorists like the ones who carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Col. Matt Smith served with the 48th Brigade in Afghanistan and now commands the unit, which traces its roots to the 19th century, when it fought in the Second Seminole War, the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War. Sitting in a conference room in his brigade’s headquarters in Macon, Smith said he understands when people ask him why the brigade is heading back. He has a ready answer for them.
“We do the nation’s bidding,” said Smith, 46, a New York native, “whatever our elected officials decide needs to be done.”
The veteran and the first-timer
Rickey Gulley remembers the nervousness he felt during his first deployment to Iraq. One more trip there and two to Afghanistan ground the jitters out of the Arkansas native. Now a command sergeant major, Rickey, 38, feels “numb” as he readies for another trip to Afghanistan, as if the butterflies can’t penetrate what he calls his “callus,” or his thick shell.
“The first deployment was pretty much the worst,” said Rickey, who has a youthful visage despite his repeated trips to war zones. And now: “I am not stressed about deploying.”
His 18-year-old daughter, he said, has a similar feeling.
“She is at that callus point, too, where I just tell my daughter, ‘Hey, I’m about to go again.’ She says, ‘OK, Dad. I’m going to pray for you. Come back home safe,’ ” he said. “The first couple of deployments probably were a lot of stress on her. But after a while the stress goes down and they already know what to do: Just pray for me.”
For its upcoming deployment, Rickey’s brigade trained for a month at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. Additional training will begin at Fort Stewart in October. When they arrive in Afghanistan, they will replace the Colorado-based 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division.
Rydell Tomas, 21, has never left the United States, so this mission is a big step for him. He joined the Guard to carry on his family’s tradition — his father and a grandfather both served in the U.S. military.
The Morrow High School graduate keeps any worries about his deployment at bay by focusing intently on what he will do when he returns home. He dreams about becoming a photographer like Steve McCurry, who shot the famous 1985 National Geographic photo of the Afghan girl with piercing green eyes.
“I am kind of just focused on doing my job to the best of my ability,” he said, “and focusing in on what I can do afterwards.”
Finding comfort at a shooting range
The Peters family picked out two paper targets: a zombie version of the late Osama bin Laden and a blue-skinned “terrorist militant” carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in one hand and a grenade in the other.
Filing into the brightly lit range at Hi-Caliber Firearms in Canton, they snapped on their protective earmuffs and then set to work. Their empty shell casings skittered across the concrete floor as their gunshots boomed.
Faith in Dalton’s extensive military training and prayers have steeled Chris and Lori for their youngest son’s mission. Growing up, their boy was even-tempered, athletic and fascinated by the military. He was just 3 years old when the terrorists struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Now he is a slender young man with a confident manner and an easy smile. One of his arms is tattooed with “Freedom Isn’t Free.” The other quotes from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things” (through Christ who strengthens me.)
Dalton, who was promoted in December to the rank of specialist, will turn 21 in Afghanistan. He pulled up a chair in the range, rested his AR-15 rifle on the counter and methodically pulled the trigger. Satisfied, he reeled his target in. The pulley system squeaked as the picture of the blue-skinned militant approached. Dalton’s shots were on target and tightly clustered.
Briefly stepping away from the range, Dalton said he had bittersweet feelings. He will miss his family. At the same time, he sees his military service as a responsibility. He also looks forward to the experience in Afghanistan, the camaraderie with fellow troops and the perspective he will have when he returns. He quoted some friends who have already deployed overseas: “When you come back, a lot of things are a lot easier. If it is not trying to kill you, you don’t worry about it.”
Seeing Dalton practice with his rifle comforts his parents. Lori sees it in athletic terms, having watched Dalton play lacrosse at Etowah High School and then at Columbus State University.
“You practice like you play, and play like you practice,” said Lori, an administrative assistant whose father served in the U.S. Marine Corps and New York Air National Guard.
Chris has similar feelings.
“The more he shoots, the more he gets prepared, the more comfortable I am with what he is doing — where he is going,” said Chris, an insurance adjuster and lacrosse official whose father served in the U.S. Army. “I feel much more at peace with it — as close as we are going to get at peace.”