Think Rural

Iraq war dead: a sacrifice of small towns
Disproportionate number of dead troops are from poor, rural areas

Copyright 2003 The Austin American Statesman

By Bill Bishop
American-Statesman staff

COAHOMA -- As a topic for his senior English paper at Coahoma High School, Chad Metcalf chose the military. Midway through his work -- between describing the rigors of training and explaining military pay-- he wrote a sentence true beyond his imagination.

"The first step to enlisting," Metcalf wrote, "is making the decision that will change your life forever."

Chad Bales Metcalf made his decision and took that step on March 18, 2002, the day he entered boot camp. One year later, Marine Chad Metcalf crossed the Iraqi border, and on April 3 he died in an accident as his unit sped across the desert.

Inside the front door of the Metcalf house on the outskirts of tiny Coahoma, his mom, Ginger, and his stepfather, John Wayne, have constructed a memorial to their son. The walls are layered with letters, maps and a case containing Chad's medals, a tiny vial of Iraqi sand and three rocks John Wayne said came from the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Outside is Howard County, Texas. The fields are flat and planted in cotton. A few well pumps go about their rhythmic work. The buildings in Coahoma are empty mostly, if they aren't burned hollow, except for the Dairy Queen, the Town and Country quick stop and an auto parts store.

Howard County is poorer than most. Its young people are leaving, although Hispanic immigrants are replacing them. It is small. Its people have low incomes. It has relatively few people with college degrees. It is economically depressed.

Disproportionately, the young men dying in Iraq come from places just like this. Compared with the nation's population, those who have died are disproportionately from smaller counties. They are disproportionately from counties with lower per capita income. They are disproportionately from places with low levels of college education.

A statistical analysis of the more than 300 U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq by American-Statesman consultant Robert Cushing shows that this may be America's war, but it is being fought by only a part of America. Deaths in Iraq

The soldiers who died aren't numbers, but numbers tell some of their story. Those who died in Iraq were 39 percent more likely than the nation as a whole to live in counties with fewer than 100,000 people. They were 16 percent more likely than the nation as a whole to live in a county with lower-than-average levels of college education and 16 percent more likely to live in counties with below-average incomes.

Those soldiers who came from the nation's large cities were disproportionately black or Hispanic. And a small proportion of those who died come from the nation's technology hubs, the score of urban areas that are creating the world's newest inventions and companies -- cities such as San Jose, Seattle, Austin and Dallas. Those who have died largely grew up in old economy towns or rural regions, places with low levels of technology and little innovation.

Was this same divide evident in the Vietnam War? "I don't think so," said Steve Maxner, associate director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University. "During the war in Southeast Asia, you had the draft."

More than anything, however, those who are dying in today's all-volunteer military come from small-town America. Their names, lives and hometowns roll through the news, and places long forgotten are known again, if only for a day.

Army Spc. James M. Kiehl of Comfort, population 1,593, left his wife a stuffed bear for their unborn child. Kiehl was baptized in Qatar before he moved into Iraq, where he was killed in an ambush near Nasiriyah.

Army Sgt. Floyd G. Knighten, Jr., 55, lived in Olla, La., population 1,417. He was born in Trout, La., and joined the Navy after graduating from Sicily Island High School in 1969. He died of heat-related illness. Knighten served in the same company as his son, Floyd G. Knighten III.

Sgt. Jacob Butler, 24, was reared in Wellsville, Kan., population 1,600, and was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Assamawah. His father, Jim, said the Butler family "believed in things that were right."

This is a conflict fought by kids like Chad Metcalf, who grew up surrounded by flat fields of cotton, who played football and showed rabbits, pigs and steers, who found college too expensive and running the roads of Howard County with high school buddies too much of a dead-end.

This is Coahoma's war.

Moving on

The senior class at Coahoma High School averages only 60 members. But for the past two years, 10 percent of the school's senior class has enlisted in the military, according to school guidance counselor Cheryl Green. Already this year, five students from the class of 2004 have said they are joining the Marines, and two are aimed toward the Navy.

Coahoma High School keeps a list of former students who are on active duty with the military. (See There are now 48 young men and women on that list. The town has slightly more than 900 residents.

In testimony before Congress in 2000, Maj. Gen. Evan Gaddis, commander of the Army's recruiters, said he hoped to "reconnect with America by breaking up large mega-recruiting stations in urban locations and migrating them to suburban and rural America." But why? Why do the towns along Interstate 20 west of Fort Worth, in rural America, send so many of their young men and women to the nation's military? And what does it mean for a country when one part of its society sends its children to the military and another doesn't?

Karen Henry has two boys in Iraq. She spread photos on the Formica table of the Coahoma Dairy Queen. Here is Russell, in Afghanistan, yukking it up with comedian Robin Williams. And here -- she flipped the pages of a small album -- here is Steven standing in front of a mural of Saddam Hussein.

Karen graduated from Coahoma High School nearly 30 years ago. She works at an oil-field service company.

"There wasn't anything here." She was explaining why two of her three boys enlisted. (The third, Murphy, had asthma; otherwise he might be in Iraq, too.) Her kids would hang out in front of the Town and Country convenience store until they "got run off." They were "bored, and they knew there was no place to get a job and that college was too expensive."

And then, she said, "90 percent of them start drinking and partying."

The local police came to a party Steven was attending. He raced out a back door. "He was walking back to his cousin's house, and he stayed up all night," Karen Henry recalled. "And that was it. He wanted more out of life."

Steven went down I-20 to the recruiting station in Midland and enlisted.

Donna Newton sat in the classroom where she runs the detention hall. Her boy Bobby is in Iraq, working as a senior mechanical engineer out of Camp Anaconda. After high school, Bobby "got into drinking and all that fun stuff," Newton said.

Bobby had "gotten into trouble" when his family "finally woke up and said it's time," she recalled. Donna and her husband were there. So was Bobby's grandmother. "We didn't encourage the military," she recalled, "but the next thing we know, he's in Midland at the recruitment office. It was a very brave decision."

Bobby was a friend of Chad Metcalf. Donna Newton and Ginger Metcalf are friends. Everyone knows everyone else in Coahoma. "Chad's situation was like Bobby's," Donna said. "In these small communities, there's nothing; the jobs are scarce. It's a do-or-die situation here. We're going to have to figure something out."

Until the adults come up with a solution, the kids are figuring it out on their own. They leave.

People have been leaving this stretch of West Texas for years. Ten miles to the west, the county seat of Big Spring had more than 35,000 people once, enough to support the 15-story Settles Hotel that looks like the Sears Tower standing alone on the West Texas plains. Now the rain pours through the abandoned hotel's roof, and water pools in the first floor meeting room. Big Spring has 25,000 people.

Coahoma's population has dropped by half during the past 30 years, to 932. The elementary school had 500 children not long ago, said high school counselor Cheryl Green. Now there are 350. "Our population is just shrinking," she said.

Nearby Sweetwater had 2,700 students in 1998. The district now has 2,200, and the Abilene newspaper blithely referred to Sweetwater as having been "named one of the fastest-shrinking Texas cities."

A noble calling

Military recruiters say they do best in places where the local culture supports the military. It helps if a potential recruit knows someone in the military, or comes from a place where service is honored.

Carroll Kohl was the pastor of the Lutheran church in Big Spring for 28 years before he retired and became chaplain at the large Big Spring Veterans Administration Medical Center. "In other places, being in the military is kind of a disgrace," he explained. "Out here, you're a first-class citizen. West Texas has the most patriotism I've ever seen anywhere."

Patriotism, service, the church, America -- they are all wound together here. Big Spring was once reputed to have the most Protestant churches per person of any town in the United States, according to the Handbook of Texas. The Sweetwater Reporter in late September carried a front-page item about "Cowboys Ridin' for Christ," a clinic promising to "train an unridden horse to ride based on scripture."

Signs welcoming home soldiers who have served in Iraq hang all over the towns along I-20. On a map at the Vietnam War memorial on a hill above Big Spring, veterans pointing out where they served have rubbed shiny spots in the granite. When Karen Henry goes to Wal-Mart in Big Spring, "people see this (Army) pin on me and I get these hugs."

"West Texas is different," Kohl explained. Indeed, it is. And although it's hard to tell whether America is moving away from West Texas or West Texas is moving away from America, it's easy to sense here that there's a split in the country between those who serve and those who don't.

That divide is real. For the first time in the country's history in 1995, the percentage of members of Congress who had served in the military fell 15 percent below the comparable cohort of Americans as a whole, according to the University of North Carolina's Richard Kohn, chairman of the school's Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense. Before, veterans were always overrepresented in Congress.

Those charged with declaring war are growing apart from those who must wage it. And those leading the military are growing apart from the rest of the country.

There have been several studies showing that elite military officers have strikingly different social and political attitudes from the general public. For example, Kohn's surveys found that elites in civilian life were evenly divided between Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. But only 10 percent of the elite military officers counted themselves as Democrats, Kohn said.

Loyola University scholar John Allen Williams wrote in 1999 that "many in the military feel estranged from civilians, whom they see as undisciplined, irresolute, and morally adrift."

Meanwhile, Williams continued, "Americans may love their military, but it is in the same way they might love their Rottweiler: They are happy enough for the protection but do not want to become one themselves." Military life is "as unfathomable as life on another planet."

Well, there are two planets. There's the planet that sends its kids to Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is the America whose only connection with the military comes from watching CNN.

Coahoma High School sends 10 percent of its graduates to the military. Westlake High School in Austin sent 97 percent of its 2002 class to college. Only four young people out of 575 Westlake seniors last year indicated they might enlist.

The difference isn't lost on those in Coahoma. "I'm looking and seeing this change building in the country," said Cheryl Green, sitting at the coffee table in the teachers lounge. "You see this huge division. It seems like it's more pronounced now. I know the people here say, 'What are the people in Massachusetts and California thinking?' "

"There's a growing gap in which military service is less understood by the more general American population," Kohn said. "It's treated as a spectator experience rather than as a participant experience."

Ginger and John Wayne Metcalf didn't know Chad would join the military until his senior year at Coahoma High. They learned later that he planned to join as early as his freshman year and that he always intended to become a Marine. "He wanted to be the best of the best," John Wayne said.

Still, the lure of Howard County's backroads almost took Chad first. Ginger Metcalf knows the stories of Chad's friends, the Henry and Newton boys, and their troubles with liquor and the law. "Chad was on that same road," she said. "There was nothing here for him. They were all going down roads they didn't need to go down."

"I would a lot rather have it happen over there than on the streets of Coahoma doing something foolish," John Wayne said of Chad's fatal crash in Iraq. "It was not a wasted death."

Nor was it a death that had to be endured alone, not in Howard County. Nearly 1,400 people came to Chad's service at the large First Baptist Church in Big Spring. John Wayne counted 186 plants delivered to the church and funeral home. Visitation before the service was scheduled for two hours. Ginger and John Wayne left after five.

John Wayne still farms in Howard County. He's been growing cotton since he was a teenager. ("I bought a cotton stripper before I graduated from high school," he said.) But farming is too uncertain for a young person, he said, and jobs in the oil fields are scarce. So neither Ginger nor John Wayne regrets that Chad joined the Marines and traveled to Iraq.

"I thought Chad needed to go," Ginger said.

In the hallway where the Metcalfs have hung dozens of maps and letters and photos of Chad's too brief military career, John Wayne points to a photo. Students at the high school in Forsan, Coahoma's nearby archrival, had worked hours in their stadium so that their prone bodies stretched across the football field would spell out, perfectly neat:


A camera from a plane flying over the cotton fields and pumping wells of West Texas captured the scene and the sentiment. The Forsan students gave the framed photo to John Wayne at a meeting of the Coahoma school board. John Wayne, who graduated from Coahoma High and is now a board member, was as proud of that photo, it seemed, as he was of the letters from senators, governors and the president.

"These small towns are really knit," Ginger said. "People watch out for each other. People from these small towns, they're fighting for each other."

They are fighting for everyone else, too, of course, even if everyone doesn't know it quite the way the people in Coahoma do.

John Wayne sat at the kitchen table and explained: "We have a country now that is run on volunteer hearts."

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