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Deaths of Guardsmen hurts Pennsylvanians
by Pamela Varkony

The Morning Call

09.02.2007

The smiling faces of the Pennsylvania National Guard Embedded Tactical Training Team look out from the photo in my office. The snow of an Afghan spring paints white streaks across the deep blue of the Pennsylvania state flag held proudly in the center of the group. The picture is one of my favorites, evoking memories of my last trip to Afghanistan and that day spent with those outstanding men.

Two of the smiling soldiers in that photograph are gone: on Monday, Aug. 27, Sgt. Scott Ball and Sgt. Jan Argonish, died in the line of duty in Afghanistan. The Associated Press reported it, CNN mentioned it, but Pennsylvania felt it -- we have lost two more of our own, bringing the number of Pennsylvania National Guard killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, to 29. Ball and Argonish were the first to die in Afghanistan. Ten more Guard members have died on duty as a result of ''non hostile actions.''

There was nothing non-hostile about the events that took the lives of Ball, Argonish, and Maj. Henry Ofeciar, of Guam, an active-duty Army officer who also died in the incident. According to Ball and Argonish's commanding officer, Lt. Col. George Schwartz, Team Leader, 1st Brigade, 201st Corps, the combat logistics patrol in which the three men were participating, came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and machine guns. Describing it as a ''very violent ambush,'' Schwartz said both men ''acted gallantly'' but were felled by gunfire. ''There were some very heroic acts performed that day,'' said Schwartz. ''When the investigation is complete, I will better be able to explain what occurred.''

For those left behind, such information will provide some comfort, but it will not fill the hole that remains in their hearts. Master Sgt. Ball, who previously served in the 82nd Airborne Division during Desert Storm, was a Pennsylvania state trooper based in Carlisle. He leaves behind a wife, two young children, and his mother.

In the time I spent with the team, to a man they expressed their belief in their mission. Ball was particularly proud of the work they were doing to train and mentor the Afghan National Army. I joked with Scott about being able to drop his name as a ''get out of jail free'' card back home if I got stopped for speeding on I-80. He said he didn't think it would work.

Sgt. Jan Argonish was not with the team the day I visited; he was in the field. By all accounts, he was as dedicated and committed as his comrades. When I think back on that time, what I remember most is the laughter. Schwartz says, ''Jan had the most subtle and quickest wit.'' Argonish, who was a guard at the federal prison in Wayne County, and, in a previous tour in Iraq, was chosen to guard Saddam Hussein. Argonish was from Scranton. He is survived by his parents, a fiancée, and a son, age 8, to whom he promised that this would be his last deployment.

Reading news reports of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan is usually a dispassionate exercise in information. However, knowing the names and faces and smiles of those casualties is a gut-wrenching, personal experience. It is a stern reminder that this is a real war, not a far-away military exercise. While we all go about our Labor Day picnics and family gatherings, fellow Americans, fellow Pennsylvanians, our soldiers, are dying to protect our way of life.

Even those whose profession it is to lead those soldiers are not immune to being stunned by the cost of freedom. Maj. Gen. Jessica L. Wright, Pennsylvania's adjutant general, when asked about the deaths of Ball and Argonish, said, ''The loss of these two warriors is devastating. It cuts me to the core. You NEVER get used to it.''

Gen. Wright went on to say that the Guard will do everything possible to make the situation as survivable as possible for the families. ''They will never be forgotten. We will hold them in our hearts and prayers forever.''

Is the cost worth it? Will these sacrifices make a difference? In the scope of history, it is too early to tell. An initially hopeful outcome for the future of Afghanistan has been clouded by the uncertainty in Iraq. But, Afghanistan is a much different situation; it is a country, not some cobbled-together territory. Afghanistan has a government that is focused on building a unified country.

When told of the deaths of Sgts. Ball and Argonish, Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States expressed his condolences: ''On behalf of the government and the people of Afghanistan, these soldiers were lost while defending freedom in Afghanistan, the region and the world. Embedded trainers like these men are playing a vital role in the reconstruction of our country, empowering Afghanistan's National Army to stand and defend our country against terrorism. Their sacrifices will be remembered, and my heart goes out to their families.''

Based on my time in Afghanistan in the past 15 months, I believe we must continue our commitment. Countless Afghans have said to me, ''Thank you for being here. Thank you for all America is doing. Don't abandon us.'' After spending time with the ETT Team from Pennsylvania, I have no doubt we have the courage to stay the course.

Pamela Varkony is a writer and commentator living in Allentown. She is a former member of City Council. Her blog, ''Perspectives ... public and private,'' can be found on-line at themorningcall.com

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