A soldier from the 391st Engineering Battalion sits in the shadow of the flag, which was at half-staff this week at Jalalabad Airfield following the deaths of four soldiers from the Army Reserve unit.

A soldier from the 391st Engineering Battalion sits in the shadow of the flag, which was at half-staff this week at Jalalabad Airfield following the deaths of four soldiers from the Army Reserve unit. (Anita Powell / S&S)

JALALABAD AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — With less than a month left in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the 391st Engineer Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., were counting the days until they returned home to their families. Then, suddenly, they suffered a loss in their other family.

On March 12, in eastern Kunar province, a roadside bomb killed four soldiers from the battalion. They were: Sgt. Kevin D. Akins, 29, of Burnsville, N.C.; Sgt. Anton J. Hiett, 25, of Mount Airy, N.C.; Spc. Joshua L. Hill, 24, of Fairmount, Ind.; and Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Ray, 29, of Asheville.

The soldiers’ wives, children, parents and siblings are experiencing grief and loss at home. Akins’ mother told the Asheville Citizen-Times that she begged him not to go to Afghanistan after returning from a year in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, their brothers in arms face their own battle with grief, anger, fear — and for some, haunting memories.

Those feelings were evident last week as a cluster of soldiers from the unit huddled in the shadow of a half-mast flag at Jalalabad Airfield.

Sgt. 1st Class Greg Haas, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the troops at the airfield, said the unit, which previously had lost only one soldier, was devastated by the loss.

“These were our people,” he said, his already red eyes welling with tears. “These guys were part of our family. … The worst thing was having to identify their bodies. I felt, ‘This is the worst possible thing I could do.’

“The first one they pulled out was [Hiett]. We spent 17 days together in Guatemala. We used to go to this little store and buy these orange sodas and sit there and talk. We’d mostly talk about senoritas. How much we liked Guatemala, how much we liked what we did.”

Since Hiett’s death, Haas said, he’s spent his quiet hours thinking about their time together.

“I have my own conversations with him,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Hey man, why did you have to go?’ ”

Soldiers who witnessed the incident carry the extra burden of helplessness.

“It’s like the worst thing that could’ve happened,” said Spc. Philip McGinty, 31, of Atlanta. “We had a great mission, but our luck ran out,” he said.

Spc. Jesse Hutchison, 19, also witnessed the incident. He said the unit has turned inward for solace. “We talk to each other,” he said. “We help each other through it.”

The men, when coaxed, offered small glimpses of the soldiers they had come to know so well.

“Sgt. Ray was an excellent squad leader,” McGinty said. “He took care of us.”

Hill, Hutchison said, “was a really sweet guy.”

Added McGinty with a chuckle: “Hill was hugging me all the time. It was weird.”

Akins, McGinty said, “was a big dude with a lot of pretty tattoos.” “He was always joking around,” Hutchison said, “but when it came down to it, he got real serious.”

Haas said that the incident had made him more determined to persevere. “All you’re going to do is make me mad. If you’re going to get tears, they’ll be tears of vengeance.”

However, he acknowledged, under that anger is fear of sending other soldiers to a similar fate. “I feel very scared about it,” he said. “I don't want to lose any more guys. We’re too short. We’re tired. It’s one of those things where I wish we’d start toning down a little. It’s not an option. We’re soldiers.”

The base’s chaplain, Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Kerry Abbott, a Catholic priest, said he intends to accompany the unit on a future convoy along the same route. “I know there’s young kids on that convoy who don’t want to go because I know they’re thinking about it.”

Abbott said the loss was especially difficult, given the nature of the unit. “There’s not many of them here, they’re reservists, they’ve known each other for a long time, they are friends,” he said. “They know each other’s families.”

Shortly after the incident, Abbott gathered with the unit.

“I spoke to them about the fact that that day at Mass the reading had been Paul, from Corinthians, ‘If God is with us, who can be against us?’ ” he said. “I told them, ‘There are people here who are against us. … I told them, ‘I am not going to offer you saccharine words. We, like millions who have gone before us in the armed forces, may be called upon to lose our lives here so that many others can have their lives, and go free.’ It was a very raw moment.

“There were a lot of tears. We prayed with them.”

The day after the soldiers’ deaths, unit members gathered at Jalalabad to say farewell and send their remains home.

“These soldiers carried their comrades onto the aircraft,” Abbott said. “And they were not in caskets, they were in body bags.

“We stood along the tarmac.… As it lifted off, we all saluted. And they started their journey home.”

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