Tennille mourns death of soldier in Afghanistan

TENNILLE, Ga. --- Sgt. David A. Holmes didn't want his family back home to know how rough it was.

Since being deployed to Afghanistan in September with the Swainsboro-based 810th Engineer Company of the Georgia Army National Guard, he sent regular dispatches through Facebook, and he chatted with his wife, Latonya, over the Internet about the children, the baby and the classes she was taking in Milledgeville to become a medical assistant, family members said.

But he wouldn't talk about the war -- not how he felt about it, not what kind of missions he was involved in, and not about the dangers he faced.

"He just tried to keep us as less worried as possible, because he knew that we didn't want him over there," said his sister, Tina Holmes. "He knew if he would have said one little thing, we would have been all worried, so he kept that to himself."

Now, trepidation has been supplanted by crushing grief. Two soldiers, one an Army chaplain, came to Latonya Holmes' door June 27, informing her that her husband had been killed the day before.

According to a Department of Defense news release, insurgents killed Holmes, 34, with an improvised explosive device in the Sayed Abad district in the central east region of Afghanistan.

The Georgia Guard's state public affairs officer said Holmes was on a route clearance mission. Three other soldiers were involved -- two were shipped to a German hospital, and another was only slightly wounded and returned to duty, Lt. Col. Ken Baldowski said.

Of the 1,057 American service members killed in and around Afghanistan since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, Holmes is the closest loss to the Augusta area. Originally from Batesville, Miss., he spent the past four years living in Washington County, just south of Sandersville, in Tennille.

His death came during a particularly violent month in what is now the nation's longest-running war. Fifty-nine Americans died in June, 10 of them during the same week as Holmes. On the same day, another Georgian, Marine Lance Cpl. William T. Richards, 20, of Trenton, died in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

On Monday, Air Force teams off-loaded their bodies together in flag-draped transfer cases at Dover Air Force Base. Latonya Holmes made the trip to Delaware for the ceremony. On Thursday, back at her home in Tennille, she was too distraught to speak to a reporter.

"It's hard," Tina Holmes said of her sister-in-law, who was resting in a back room. "Trying to take one day at a time. She's struggling every day. She's barely been sleeping."

As for their children, "I don't think they quite understand right now," she said.

'I'll be back in a little while'

After graduating from high school in 1995, Holmes joined the Marines and later switched to the Navy. He was a Navy SEAL when he met his future wife in Beaufort, S.C., through her sister, Erica Thomas, and her Marine husband.

Four years ago, the couple married and moved to her family's home county. They had four children between them, the youngest a 1-year-old son.

Holmes worked full time as a guard at Washington State Prison and part time as a security officer at Jefferson County Correctional Institution. For an extra paycheck, he joined the 810th, part of the Augusta-based 878th Engineer Battalion, and was working toward military retirement, relatives said.

"It was to provide for his family," Tina Holmes said. "It was stable, benefits, all that, because he definitely was a provider. He made sure his wife and kids didn't want for anything."

Thomas, Holmes' sister-in-law, said that when he shipped out in September, he said only, "I'll be back in a little while," with the attitude that the deployment was just another job to do. Tina Holmes said she understood her brother's job in Afghanistan was to clear debris off roads.

But route clearance is far more treacherous than that. The 810th is one of three companies under the command of the Missouri-based 203rd Engineer Battalion, known as "Houn' Dawgs," responsible for sniffing out and disabling IEDs on roads, according to a January article by American Forces Press Service.

It's considered one of the most dangerous and important missions in Afghanistan, the article said.

In a May blog post, the 203rd's public affairs officer described soldiers walking ahead of convoys, looking for buried, ultra-thin copper wires connecting road bombs to distant power sources, and cutting them.

He said the insurgents, keen to the tactic, had begun setting bombs in trees and wheat fields where the soldiers patrol, "hoping to catch one or more of them in a deadly trap."

Baldowski said Holmes' death is under investigation by the Army, and he had no specifics on the circumstances.

The death hit hard in Tennille, population 1,439. The city set up a marquee sign near the railroad tracks on 4th Street expressing sympathy for the family. All week, family, friends and Holmes' co-workers from the prison were in and out of the house, sharing tears, hugs and food.

"Even the mailman, he came in and told us he was sorry for the loss," Tina Holmes said.

Thomas said it amazes her how many people considered her brother-in-law a friend, despite his being a recent transplant to the small town. He used to play pick-up basketball at the Washington County Recreation Department center in Sandersville, she said, and he spent a lot of time at the public library.

He had to go there to log on to the Internet after his son broke the screen on their home computer, she said.

"He wasn't a stranger to anybody," Thomas said. "He came here, and I've been here my whole life, and he knew people I didn't even know."

Recent casualties heavy

As the war in Iraq winds down -- with combat operations scheduled to end Aug. 31 -- the war in Afghanistan is heating up. President Obama has initiated a surge and recently replaced top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus.

Once considered a safer place to deploy than Iraq, Afghanistan has seen more than five times as many American deaths so far this year.

A look at casualty figures, as of Friday:

WHAT: Operation Iraqi Freedom (renamed Operation New Dawn this year)

START DATE: March 19, 2003

TOTAL MILITARY DEATHS: 4,400

MILITARY WOUNDED IN ACTION: 31,874

DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE CIVILIAN WORKER DEATHS: 13

MILITARY DEATHS IN 2010: 39

WHAT: Operation Enduring Freedom

START DATE: Oct. 7, 2001

MILITARY DEATHS: 1,057 in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan; 78 in Guantanamo Bay, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Yemen

MILITARY WOUNDED IN ACTION: 6,623

DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE CIVILIAN WORKER DEATHS: 2

MILITARY DEATHS IN 2010: 207

Source: U.S. Department of Defense

Sgt. David A. Holmes

AGE: 34

FAMILY: Wife, Latonya; daughter, age 15; son, age 10; daughter, age 10; son, age 1

HOMETOWN: Batesville, Miss.

Residence: Tennille, Ga.

UNIT: Georgia Army National Guard's Swainsboro-based 810th Engineer Company, part of the Augusta-based 878th Engineer Battalion

PRIOR MILITARY SERVICE: Marines, Navy

WHAT HE SAID BEFORE HE DEPLOYED: "I'm really looking forward to this deployment because of where we're going and the new equipment we have received and been trained on. This deployment will be different than when I deployed before with the Marines as a truck driver during my first deployment." -- According to an article posted on GeorgiaGuard.com

CIVILIAN OCCUPATION: Full-time prison guard at Washington State Prison, part-time security officer at Jefferson County Correctional Institution

KILLED: June 26 in Afghanistan's Sayed Abad district, by an improvised explosive device