As war's toll rises, who at home is paying attention?

Friday, August 31, 2007 | 1:12 p.m. CDT; updated 7:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The County Commission chamber has a long, curving desk across the front, with high-backed, comfortable-looking chairs for the commissioners. Last Wednesday night, those chairs and others were occupied by speakers at what was called the “Ninth Congressional District Town Hall Meeting” on the Iraq war. Each speaker was identified by a placard on the desk.

As the speakers sat down, one chair remained empty. The placard before it read “Rep. Kenny Hulshof,” the Ninth District congressman himself. To nobody’s surprise, Kenny was a no-show. His chair was commandeered to seat one of the crowd that filled the chamber to overflowing.

With notable exceptions, you don’t get to be a congressman by being an idiot. Kenny’s no fool. He understood, I’m confident, that there aren’t many Hulshof supporters in the ranks of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, which sponsored the meeting. So it probably wasn’t a close call for him, or rather his staff, to decline the invitation.

If he had attended, the meeting would have been a “conversation between an elected representative and his constituents,” organizer Jane Whitesides told me. I’d like to have heard Kenny’s half of that conversation. With his votes, he has been a down-the-line supporter of the president’s policy; but he hasn’t had much to say on the subject. In his absence, the spectrum of opinion on the war appeared to range from strongly opposed to passionately opposed. The most powerful speaker never raised her voice. Instead, Stacy Hafley of Sturgeon read a letter from her husband, Joe, whose year in Iraq left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. “He doesn’t do well in crowds,” she explained.

She did fine. So did their three sons, aged 7, 5 and 3, who sat on the floor in front of the speakers as quietly as three little boys could be expected to sit. Their father’s letter told how it seemed to him that while he was at war nearly everybody else was at the mall. Their mother, in a quiet voice, told how she went to Truman Veterans Hospital seeking help when Joe neglected to take his medication and lost control. She was told to leave, she said, because only veterans, and not family members, are eligible for assistance.

We stood and applauded her for a long time, but I couldn’t help thinking that applause, no matter how warm, is no substitute for the kind of action that could be compelled by a congressman. Maybe he’ll hear about the situation.

Or maybe not. I doubt it came up Friday at the Pachyderm Club, where Renee Hulshof was scheduled to speak. When I called the congressman’s Columbia office (449-5111) Thursday morning, a pleasant young man told me that Kenny wasn’t in town and had no constituent events scheduled before Congress goes back in session this week.

The fountain was spraying as we left the commission chamber. It was cool and pleasant, a nice night for conversation. The high temperature in Baghdad Wednesday was 111. The low was 97. And Marine Cpl. Rogelio Ramirez of Pasadena, Calif., was killed. His was American death No. 3,724.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian. He is professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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