In Cynthiana, the war became personal

Residents assisted Guard families

lblackford@herald-leader.comSeptember 11, 2011 

CYNTHIANA — "Take my daughter fishing."

That was Andy Wigglesworth's request to his friends in the Cynthiana Fire Department just before he shipped off to Afghanistan with his National Guard unit in 2008.

They did, taking Cami Wigglesworth, 17, to the same farm ponds she used to fish with her dad. And that's not all. When the families of Wigglesworth or Jack True, another firefighter in the Cynthiana Guard unit, needed their car checked, the lawn mowed or some moral support at soccer games, their fire-fighting brethren —and lots of other residents — were there.

"It was just amazing," said Wigglesworth, who returned to Cynthiana's downtown fire station after more than a year of clearing improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. "I can't say enough about this community and what they did."

As Kentuckians reflect on the 10 years since 9/11, they remember the burning towers with the same shock and sadness as the rest of the country. But Kentucky has been affected less by that attack than by its aftermath: the decade-long war on terror, which included fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is what has taken people away from their families, their jobs and their lives to war theaters overseas.

And no organization has been more touched than the Kentucky National Guard. Nearly 10,000 Guard members were sent on more than 14,000 deployments.

With 23 deaths and hundreds of injuries among National Guardsmen and women, many of Kentucky's small, tight-knit communities have learned about sacrifice. "When a county has a guard unit there in their community, they get to see the real costs of freedom," said Maj. Joseph Gardner, who served in the Cynthiana National Guard early in his career before becoming battalion commander of the 103rd Chemical Battalion in Richmond. "It has made strong families and strong communities, and you cannot mobilize a unit without those two things."

In another sense, the war on terror has changed the National Guard, too. No longer does someone sign up, knowing that he or she will only clean up floods and other natural disasters.

"The war on terror has changed a lot of views," said Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Roe, the Cynthiana readiness officer. "People see we aren't just weekend warriors. We were fighting a war on two fronts. The old guard is no more ... we are the same as our brothers in active duty."

On the home front

The National Guard units based in Cynthiana pull people from other communities in Northern and Eastern Kentucky. About 100 of them were deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, but various training assignments in the United States before that meant they were away from home for nearly two years.

When they finally shipped out, churches and other community groups quickly started organizing care packages of treats.

New technology, such as Skype and Facebook, made it easier for all soldiers to stay abreast of what's going on at home. In addition, every National Guard unit has a family-assistance group to help those left behind with financial or emotional issues, or simply organizing events for kids, such as trips to Mammoth Cave.

Still, Cynthiana's population of 6,500 means even a few absences can make a difference.

"Their volunteerism, the things they do in their community, the things they do in their own family, you really notice when they're gone," Cynthiana Mayor Steve Moses said.

Col. Roger Purcell runs the ROTC unit at Harrison County High School. He said that even after the shock of 9/11, the reality set in only when family members of students started being deployed.

"It made for a long year," he said. "The ones who wanted to talk would come talk to me about it, and we would talk about how safe they were. It opened a lot of kids' eyes to the military."

Federal law requires that employers save the jobs of National Guard members. In some cases, it works out well. When Wigglesworth and his colleague Jack True left for Afghanistan, Cynthiana Fire Chief James Sanders was able to hire two temporary workers to fill their shifts. When Wigglesworth and True returned, city officials allowed all four to remain on.

"That was a godsend for us. It got our numbers up to where they belonged," Sanders said.

The police department also was affected. Of 16 officers, two were deployed.

"Everyone chips in and does the extra time and no one complains," Police Chief Ray Johnson said. "It's amazing how this community pulls together when they have to."

Maureen Wigglesworth said the support and constant contact with her husband made things much easier than they might have been.

"But it was still hard not knowing if he was safe," she said. And frequently, he wasn't. Clearing IEDs was one of the most dangerous parts of the war. Wigglesworth said his vehicle was hit four times; the fourth time, the armored car split apart, giving him a minor head injury and a separated shoulder.

The IEDs weren't the only danger.

Sgt. Daniel Wallace of Dry Ridge, who was based in Cynthiana, was killed when his armored vehicle was attacked with small arms fire in the West Paktika province in Afghanistan. He was the only casualty from the Cynthiana-based units.

"That was not a good day," said Roe, whose eyes filled with tears at the memory.

Wallace's family still comes to Christmas dinners and other celebrations with the Cynthiana guard units. His picture and uniform hang in the glass cabinet in the lobby of the armory, a reminder of the reality of war.

That's been a lesson for Maureen Wigglesworth, who met her husband when they were both stationed in Alaska with the Army. When he signed up for the National Guard, she thought he'd be helping with natural disasters, not going overseas to deal with a man-made one.

"I'm not sure everyone understands; they just go on with their day-to-day lives," she said. "But for us, for people in the military, this war has been all-consuming."

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