Originally created 09/26/03

Small towns deal with the deaths of soldiers in Iraq



BARNWELL, S.C. -- South Carolina's latest casualty in the war with Iraq, Army Sgt. Anthony Thompson, will be buried Sunday in Branchville, a town of barely 1,000.

The 26-year-old was like most serviceman from the Palmetto State who have died in the war in Iraq - he came from a small, rural town with a tight-knit community. Word of his death spread quickly among the many people who knew Thompson or his family.

"If he had been from Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston or Columbia it would've been ... a name and a passing person," said friend Isaiah Owens, who grew up with Thompson. "In Branchville, it's not like that. Everybody knew his mother and the kids."

At least seven men from South Carolina have died during the war, most coming from towns of less than 15,000. North Carolina has had nine service members die and Georgia has had 11, many from the suburbs of major cities or medium-size towns.

Air Force Lt. Col. David Turner said the small communities see a need to send their sons off to war, and after initial disappointment, the towns stand proud, he said.

"A small town has a sense of community and patriotism that's sometimes lost in bigger cities," said Turner, who's with the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. "You love your country and support it."

Thompson was killed last week along with two other soldiers when they were ambushed by small arms fire and a rocket propelled grenade in Tikrit, Iraq, the Defense Department said.

Thompson was the second graduate of Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School to die in Iraq. He graduated in 1995 and then joined the Army.

"It's unfortunate that this is one of the byproducts of the war," school district spokesman Greg Carson said.

Thompson was born in Orangeburg, but Owens said Thompson had many relatives in Branchville and could be considered a resident with the rest of the 1,083 people in town.

He was a member of the choir and an usher with his late mother at Branchville's Canaan Baptist Church, where services will be held Sunday.

Thompson's death resonated across rural South Carolina towns, particularly in Barnwell, a small town 30 miles west of Branchville where Army Spc. Orenthial Smith and Army Sgt. George Buggs were buried earlier this year.

Turner, who along with his Air Force chaplain duties is a pastor at Barnwell Presbyterian, said news of Buggs' death spread quickly through the town of 5,035.

"There was a sense of pride for him," Turner said. "He was honored here."

Turner said even as the death toll for U.S. service members in Iraq grows, it hardly changes the community's support for the war.

One sign along a rural highway read "God Bless Our Troops." Yellow ribbons dot Barnwell's city streets and cars wear magnetic U.S. flags.

Most of the war protesting is done in South Carolina's larger cities and even there, the turnout is light. "I haven't run across anyone against it," Turner said of the war.

The Rev. Hank Avent of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles remembered when he heard Buggs, who was the first soldier from South Carolina confirmed killed, was reported missing.

"There was a very strong response," Avent said. Buggs' funeral was held at a local middle school. "I think it brought the community together," he said.

Zane Jowers, 27, has been apart of the Barnwell community for just six months, but he has seen the support for the troops at his new hot dog and ice cream parlor near the town circle.

"Local people support local people, that's the way it's always been," Jowers said. The young businessman worries about friends overseas. "It's tough to get through, but you have the support of the community."

Jowers flies a U.S. flag that hangs low enough to touch people.

"Maybe that's a good reminder," he said. "It slaps them in the face and reminds them what's going on."