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Patriots in the Heartland

In the shadow of Fort Leonard Wood, daily life means
a daily immersion in the fallout of international conflict
Sunday, May 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:34 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The mayor of Waynesville conducts his duties via e-mails from Iraq. Veterans vow that this time around, the troops will be welcomed home with parades, not protests. Letters abroad fly back and forth from the post office.

For those who live in a military town, patriotism is a passion and military life a reality.

And even as questions about the war grow across the nation, the friends and families of these soldiers say doubt is not a bearable option.

WAYNESVILLE — In most small towns, the charity jar by the restaurant’s cash register is now collecting funds for the March of Dimes. Here at Captain D’s, the cause is a veterans’ monument.

In many places, people expect their mayor to be ever present at town affairs, sporting suit and power tie. Here, the mayor sometimes wears Army green, and due to recent marching orders is now advising constituents via e-mails from Iraq.

Just off Highway T, Leon Nelson, a 78-year-old visiting the Concrete Yard Ornaments and Farm Equipment shop, braces himself against the morning wind and the memory of serving Uncle Sam in three wars. He vows that as the troops come home this time, there’ll be parades — not the protests he faced upon returning from Vietnam.

And when a car passes a local cemetery where a uniformed soldier is attending a funeral, its driver stops just to shake his hand.

In Waynesville and adjoining St. Robert, the idea of war is not an abstract. Patriotism is a local passion, and military life, a daily reality. The politics of war seem to be an afterthought as residents shower local soldiers — their neighbors and friends — with support. Perhaps that’s inescapable for the two towns closest to Fort Leonard Wood, which as of March was home to 14,000 troops and has dispatched more than 500 men and women to Iraq.

Despite national reports of growing unrest about the Iraqi conflict even among military families, some townspeople say they’ve chosen to stand behind their troops no matter what. It’s the only way to cope, they say. Folks here are just dealing with the ongoing conflict the best way they know how.

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While many shops in St. Robert were closed in the afternoon of Good Friday last month, Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Schoonover worked at the Waynesville/St. Robert recruitment office, which is located in a strip mall in the town.

Inside the Army recruiting office, a wall display of about 20 local recruits’ pictures is labeled the “Army of the Future.” Most of the smiling faces look young, their hands probably roughened only by the basketballs and footballs soon to be replaced by Army-issue guns. Typical recruits are between 17 and 34, according to recruiter Sgt. Travis Adkins, the only soldier holding down the proverbial fort this particular Saturday morning.

A high school senior stands surrounded by Army memorabilia, seemingly at a crossroad. His smile says he’s shy, but his white T-shirt boldly announces that “Cowgirl butts drive him nuts.” His dad is nearby, broad and muscular, sporting a military cap and a look of intense pride.

A moment ago, the son signed with the Army, promising to report for duty soon after getting his diploma this month. He wants to be an Airborne Ranger.

Adkins hasn’t seen a change in recruiting near Fort Leonard Wood since the war in Iraq began.

“Motivation to join is higher in a military community than somewhere like Columbia,” Adkins says. “We’re more patriotic here. But I still see a balance between patriotic motivation and the ‘I don’t want to go to war’ mentality.”

In the last 19 months, his office has recruited more than 150 people from the area. That’s 2.4 percent of the Waynesville/St. Robert population of 6,267. Columbia, estimated population 89,174, yielded about 80 recruits, or 0.001 percent, during the same period.

Family ties also seem to run deep here. It’s common for children to follow their fathers or mothers into military service and for recruits to request training at Fort Leonard Wood.

Down the highway, just outside Waynesville proper, around 75 of the area’s veterans have retired — eternally — at Sunset Memorial Estates. Although the lush green lawn is silent, copper placards on many tombstones tell the story of military service in both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. Markers of war occasionally appear on both a husband’s gravestone and on his wife’s, announcing that these sweethearts were side by side in military service and now in death.

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The residents of Waynesville and St. Robert show support for troops with yellow ribbons. This one in front of a small shopping center greets people heading toward Fort Leonard Wood.

Many servicemen and women retire in the Waynesville area because of the town’s amenities and friendly atmosphere, says Gordon Harris, owner of Looking Good Upholstery. Harris, a native New Yorker, retired from the Army 10 years ago but stayed in mid-Missouri because of its “good hospital, good schools and cheap living.”

Tom Tinsley, Waynesville city administrator, says military retirees from all over the country settle in Waynesville because of access to Army health benefits and Fort Leonard Wood’s PX store (an Army-operated department store). However, Tinsley adds, the retirees also do a lot of local shopping — it’s all part of fitting into the social scene.

“It’s hard to tell who’s retired military because they meld into the community, do civic things and get involved in politics,” Tinsley says.

It’s true. Remember that Waynesville’s mayor is an Army man, though not quite retired.

After a tie vote in the 2000 election, Cliff Hammock won his first mayoral race by the flip of a coin. Faring much better this April, Hammock picked up a second term by nearly 65 percent. And this was after he had told constituents that he’d be leaving Waynesville on April 18 and heading for active duty in Iraq.

Because of his military obligation, Hammock will advise the city by e-mail, while a mayor pro tem fills the role in his stead.

Tinsley calls Hammock’s situation “strange politics” but says that’s to be expected in an area this saturated with military support.

Harris, the New York soldier-turned-businessman, has a detailed mural of Uncle Sam on his shop. The art, adorning the side of Looking Good that faces Waynesville’s main drag, “really helps bring people in,” he says.

“People are supportive because of the base,” Harris says, “but they don’t talk a lot about whether they agree with the fighting or not.”

When they put on that uniform, he says, the attitude is that fighting is “just what you do.”

Nearby, at Margie’s Head Shed, an older woman sits in a worn brocade chair and waits for a haircut. She says she doesn’t vote, doesn’t like politics and thinks sending American troops and resources into other countries is wrong. She refuses to give her name, saying she’s probably the only one in town who feels this way and doesn’t want to make her neighbors angry.

“There’s folks that need money here, but we’re sending troops over there to take care of the world,” the woman says. “I’m patriotic. I have flags, and I believe in using the military for good, but right now I’m aggravated.”

Gesturing toward a week-old magazine on the salon’s coffee table, where a broad headline boasts about America’s fruitless hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, she adds, “These politicians were sending in troops, then not finding what they were looking for, and now they have to clean it up. And for what?”

In Tinsley’s opinion, dissent like this woman’s is the exception, not the rule. “We understand the military here, where a lot of people probably don’t because they don’t deal with military daily,” he says. “There might be individuals that don’t agree with the war, but they probably don’t want to articulate that to others in town.”

Leon Nelson, the 78-year-old veteran checking on his tractor repairs, shrugs off questions about undiscovered weapons, voicing unconditional support for those in combat.

“If you’re gonna go to war, you go to win,” he says. “We’ve sent our troops over there, and we’re not going to neglect them. Here, any veteran gets a hero’s welcome because people know what they’ve done and appreciate it.”

Nelson’s son, Don Nelson, points out that because on-base jobs are abundant, most civilians have ties to the fort. He teaches at Fort Leonard Wood’s on-base school, for example, and sees the daily struggles and triumphs of local military families.

According to its Web site, Fort Leonard Wood’s payroll includes about 3,500 civilians and 5,000 permanent military staff, making it the area’s biggest employer.

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Sun Mitchell sews flags on an Army jacket in her dry cleaning shop on Missouri Avenue in St. Robert.

Waynesville’s post office harbors another group of civilians who see the military impact firsthand — the workers who stamp, ship and deliver correspondence between the troops and their families. Here, pamphlets and posters on homeland security and keeping mail safe repeatedly remind customers of the do’s and don’ts of wartime communication.

From behind the busy counter, a postal clerk tells of dispatching lots of care packages but also of receiving letters home and boxes of things soldiers couldn’t fit in their post-combat luggage.

One reason for the overwhelming support in Waynesville/St. Robert is that the fort not only takes soldiers away into combat but also brings new life to the area. While no official statistics on development are available, Tinsley says the area is “busting at the seams” with new construction. Because Waynesville is more of a “bedroom community,” growth there is more residential, he says. St. Robert, located closer to the Army base, has seen more retail growth.

In its front window, Express Cleaners and Alterations, located just off-base, displays life-sized pictures of smiling soldiers in crisp dress uniforms — apparently a solid marketing strategy, as a steady stream of military personnel carrying Army-green garment bags can be seen marching in. Crew cuts dominate the men’s hair market, creating demand for more barbershops than a typical small town would know what to do with.

Even though concessions and conveniences abound for Army-types in the area, Angela Rinck, a water scientist at the fort and floral-shop owner, says political differences between the “locals” who grew up here and military transplants can lead to the formation of cliques.

“This area is historically Democratic. Then the military moved in, and they’re mostly Republican. This leads to different viewpoints,” says Rinck. “There’s not much social interaction between the locals and the military. Each stays with their own.”

Tinsley doesn’t think clashes between what he calls the “mostly Democratic” locals and the “non-political” Army are related to partisan stances, but he agrees that longtime residents sometimes prefer to “keep to their own.”

“Not long ago, when the fort was just a basic training facility, there was a different kind of military here,” Tinsley says. Now, soldiers are “highly trained and educated, and they stay longer and fit in better. Even though some locals feel like staying separate, that attitude is going away quickly.”

On days like today, even the most reclusive citizen would find it hard to separate himself from the military reality of Waynesville. Instead of reminders to slow down, portable highway signs flash a welcome home to the “Fighting 5th,” a group of Army engineers recently returned from a year in Iraq. And from the look of things, it must be difficult for the local Wal-Mart to keep yellow ribbons and American flags in stock.

Folks here don’t wait for national holidays to hold a parade. All they need is another group of local soldiers returning home from war.

The engineers got a police escort through town and an impressive welcome upon returning home, Adkins says. They are known as the “Fighting 5th” because unlike most engineer groups they were involved in fighting while building roads and bridges through combat zones. “People lined the streets, came out of their businesses to support them.”

Adkins is thinking of retiring this month, and maybe he’ll stay in the area. He gazes out the recruiting office’s front window. His Yamaha motorcycle bearing an American flag and an eagle decal waits outside in the sun.

“Can you tell I’m proud to be in the military?” he asks. He looks as though he’ll never completely retire – and in Waynesville, that seems entirely possible.


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