A Town Says Goodbye to its Soldiers
A survey by the National League of Cities recently found that three-fourths of all city governments have lost police, fire and other emergency workers to deployment by National Guard and Reserve units headed overseas. In smaller cities and towns, the loss of key personnel can hit hard -- and the emotional impact of deployment can also be disproportionate.
NPR’s Howard Berkes visits the small rural town of Beaver, Utah, as its National Guard unit prepares to leave, possibly to serve in the Mideast, and finds conflicting emotions among the soldiers, town residents and the families they leave behind.
Beaver is home to the logistical battery of the 222nd Field Artillery Battalion. The town has had a Utah National Guard unit for 160 years, and now counts about 70 local men in the current corps.
"Almost everybody in Beaver -- that's 2,500 people -- count the National Guard soldiers as family, friends or acquaintances," Berkes says. "One out of every four children at the elementary school is directly related to a unit member. A third of the Sheriff's Department -- along with dairy farmers, creamery workers, businesspeople, ranchers, corrections officers and teachers -- leave with the unit tomorrow."
The timing of the call-up, says Beaver Mayor Wade Bradshaw, couldn't be worse for the local economy. The town's agricultural economy is already suffering from drought and low cattle prices. "It's almost as though we're getting kicked when we're down."
The last time soldiers from Beaver's National Guard unit were called to action was during the Korean War. Those soldiers survived hand-to-hand combat while heavily outnumbered, but every soldier returned home -- earning the battery a presidential citation for bravery.
That legacy is a lot to live up to -- and it's devastating for one of the unit's most senior soldiers, sidelined because of a bad knee. "It's very hard, very emotional for me not to be able to go," said 30-year National Guard veteran Les. (All the soldiers in this story are referred to by their first name only, to protect their privacy.) "At the time they need you the worst, it's hard not being able to go."
Even with the unflinching patriotism evident among the soldiers, there are also questions about the imminent war.
"We support our country. We support the war on terrorism -- but I think we question the need... whether this is necessary," says Chad Johnson. Johnson, who owns a furniture store on Main Street, is a Vietnam War veteran and commander of the town's American Legion post.
"You know, it’s going to be awfully difficult for that parent or that wife to see their son or husband leave when they’re not thoroughly convinced that this is a necessity," he tells Berkes. "But again, the soldier has no say in it -- he does what he’s told to do."
When the National Guard unit leaves town, they will be escorted up Main Street by fire engines, police cars and cheering crowds. "And as several townspeople describe it, that leaves a big, gaping hole in Beaver's soul," Berkes says.
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