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Washington County soldier prepares for tour in Iraq

November 21, 2007|By HEATHER KEELS

BIG POOL - Army Spec. Jeremy McAfee feels he's as prepared as a soldier can be for his Dec. 7 deployment to Iraq.

The 21-year-old has completed basic training, memorized some Arabic words and even spent two months practicing disarming IEDs in a simulated Iraqi village in California where the bombs explode with all the fury of Hollywood's best special effects.

But there was nothing that could prepare his 21-year-old wife, Ashley, for the day she went with him to sign a power of attorney document and a will, just in case something goes wrong.

It's hard enough knowing their 4-month old daughter, Kaylee, will be almost 2 before her father comes home for good, Ashley said last week during a goodbye visit with Jeremy's parents, who live in Big Pool. Jeremy, a 2004 South Hagerstown High School graduate, has been stationed in Hawaii for about two years.

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"It's going to be hard on holidays, our anniversary, her first birthday," Ashley said.

On his 15-month tour with the 66th Engineer Co., Jeremy will go first to Kuwait, to get acclimated to the Middle East, then on to a base in Taji, Iraq, north of Baghdad. As a combat engineer, his job will be to use robots to remotely detonate explosives that can be hidden in anything from a soda can to a dead animal or an unattended tank, he said.

"We're the first ones on the road in the morning so we can clear the route for everybody else," Jeremy said.

It's a position he sought out specifically in the summer of 2005, when, after a year of playing baseball at Hagerstown Community College, he decided he was tired of school and needed a more secure way to earn a living with his athletic abilities.

The military was a natural choice for a man who loves travel and adrenaline and is comfortable using guns after a childhood spent hunting, Jeremy's father, Chris McAfee, said.

"He does good under pressure," Chris McAfee said.

Jeremy's mother, Lisa McAfee, spoke with pride about Jeremy's progress in the Army. He reached the rank of specialist six months before the usual minimum of two years, she said.

His family members comfort each other with reminders of all Jeremy will have going for him. There are the reassuring reports that violence against U.S. soldiers is declining. There's the experience of the soldiers in his company, about three-quarters of whom have served in Iraq before. There's the heavily guarded base that offers comforts such as a gym, recreation center, Subway, Burger King and Pizza Hut.

Jeremy will have a computer and Webcam to keep in touch with his family, just as he did during his training in California. Ashley said she plans to hold their daughter up to the camera and point out her father's face on the screen in hopes that her first word will be "Daddy."

And then there's next summer to look forward to, when Jeremy will return home on leave at the end of seven months, she said.

These things help, but they don't make his approaching departure any less emotional. On a recent trip to the mall, Lisa McAfee said she had a necklace made with Jeremy's picture and the engraved words "Keep my son safe."

When the employee handed it to her, she cried.

"We know he's going, but it doesn't seem real yet," she said.

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