Rural America hit hard by war - Nearly half of U.S. military deaths hail from smaller towns
By Kimberly Hefling
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune and The Associated Press
Published February 20, 2007
McKEESPORT, Pa. -- Edward "Willie" Carman wanted a ticket out of town, and the Army provided it.
Raised in the projects by a single mother in this blighted steel town outside Pittsburgh, the 18-year-old saw the U.S. military as an opportunity.
"I'm not doing it to you, I'm doing it for me," he told his mother, Joanna Hawthorne, after coming home from high school one day and surprising her with the news.
When Carman died in Iraq three years ago at age 27, he had money saved for college, a fiance and two kids--including an infant son he'd never met. Neighbors in Hawthorne's mobile home park collected $400 and left it in an envelope in her door.
For a year after his death, Hawthorne took a chair to the cemetery nearly every day, sat next to his grave and talked quietly. Her vigil continues even now, although the visits have dropped to once a week.
Across the nation, small towns are quietly bearing the war's burden.
Nearly half of the more than 3,000 U.S. military fatalities in Iraq have come from towns like McKeesport, where fewer than 25,000 people live, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. One in five hailed from hometowns of less than 5,000.
The Census Bureau said 56 percent of the population in 2005 lived in towns under 25,000 and in unincorporated areas.
Many of the hometowns of the war dead aren't just small, they're poor. The AP analysis found that nearly three-fourths of those killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average.
On a per capita basis, states with mostly rural populations have suffered the highest casualties in Iraq.
There's a "basic unfairness" about the number of troops dying in Iraq who are from rural areas, said William O'Hare, senior visiting fellow at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute, which examines rural issues.
Rural communities are "being asked to pay a bigger price for this military adventure, if I can use that word, than their urban counterparts," O'Hare said.
Tighter knit, harder hurt
As a result, in more than a thousand small towns across the country, friends and families have been left struggling to make sense of a loved one's death in Iraq.
"In a small community, even if you don't know somebody's name, you at least know their face, you've seen them before, talked to them maybe," said Chuck Bevington, whose 22-year-old brother Allan, of Beaver Falls, Pa., died in Iraq, after volunteering for a second tour. "A small community feels it a lot tighter because they've had more contact with each other."
Even strangers come up and hug his mother, he said.
A Marine recruiter came to Ryan Kovacicek's two-story house outside Washington, Pa., off a mountain rural road surrounded by cattle pastures. "You don't really understand what you're getting into," Kovacicek's father, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, told his son.
"Yes, I do," Ryan Kovacicek stubbornly replied before signing the papers.
Before leaving for Iraq, Kovacicek took his girlfriend to a car dealership along Interstate 79, pointed to a giant American flag flying overhead, and declared, "This is why I joined the Marines."
When his body was brought home, the hearse passed the same flag.
The day of Kovacicek's funeral, people lined Route 19, holding signs with his name. Children waved flags and men held their hands over their hearts before the procession of more than 300 cars. His parents say they've been overwhelmed by the support of the community with tributes and phone calls from his friends and fellow Marines.
"If God was going to take him at 22, if he didn't take him like he did, how was he going to do it? I feel a lot better losing him this way because there was a lot of meaning behind what he did," his father said.
E-mail this story
An `embittering experience'
While support for the war in rural areas initially was high, there has been a sharp decline in the past three years. AP-Ipsos polls show that those in rural areas who said it was the right decision to go to war dropped from 73 percent in April 2004 to 39 percent now. In urban areas, support declined from 43 percent in 2004 to 30 percent now.
As the Iraq war heads into its fourth year, Vietnam war historian Christian Appy said its burden on smaller communities can be a very "embittering experience" for those who live there--just as with Vietnam.
One who's conflicted about the U.S. role in Iraq is Marilyn Adams, 37, of Wexford, Pa. Her 3-year-old son opened the door in 2005 when an officer came to tell her of the death of her husband, Pennsylvania National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Brent Adams, 40, in Iraq.
"I'm torn," she said. "Should we finish the job? And then I go to the funerals of the local guys and I'm like, this is just stupid . . . I don't think we're going to finish it there. I don't think there's a finishing point. They're getting more efficient at killing us--that's a direct quote from the president."
`For history books to decide'
Chuck Bevington, whose brother died in Iraq, doesn't like what he calls the politicizing of the troops.
"The last thing these men need are people second-guessing what's going on," he said. "That's something for the history books to decide whether it's right or wrong."
Hawthorne isn't waiting on history's verdict. She's bitter about a military she said enticed her son with promises of money, then sent him to a war based on a lie.
He died in Iraq in 2004 when his tank overturned. "When they came and told me he was gone, oh my God, it just crushed me," Hawthorne said.
"You don't see anyone who has money putting their children into the military," she said. "I'm all for our soldiers. Without them our country wouldn't be where we are today, but this war just doesn't seem right. Like the Vietnam one. It's not right."