Skip to comments.Small Ohio Town, Hurt Deeply By War, Still Produces Soldiers
Posted on 03/19/2003 9:24:45 AM PST by Stand Watch Listen
BEALLSVILLE, Ohio -- Six young men from this town died fighting in the Vietnam War.
That statistic put Beallsville, population 475, in the history books as the American town that suffered more losses per capita than any other during that war. Children here are taught the names of those victims not long after they start school.
"We're proud to be what?" Pat Marcum asked her kindergarten students.
"Americans!" the children shouted.
So much suffering might turn some communities against war, or at least against military service. But not this one. About 100 Monroe County residents are on active military duty today, a rate of service that is about one-third higher than the national average. Some students at Beallsville High School say the looming battle with Iraq makes them more inclined to choose the military over college.
"My three uncles and my grandfather all fought in wars," says 18-year-old Tyler Brown, a high-school senior who is considering enlistment. "It would give me a sense of pride."
The nation's smallest and poorest communities have long sent a disproportionate number of soldiers to war. In World War II and Vietnam, the draft gave most young men little choice. Even in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War, young people in Monroe County had few options. Jobs were scarce and college was expensive.
But since then, a new coal mine has opened and the retail job market has improved in surrounding counties. As a result, the unemployment rate has dropped to 8% from 12%. Belmont Technical College, a 45-minute drive from Beallsville, has begun offering two years of free tuition to Monroe County high-school graduates. Opportunities have never been greater, yet military recruiting here hasn't suffered.
"I think it's the way we're brought up," says Sgt. Rusty Lucas, an Army recruiter whose cousin was one of the Beallsville men killed in Vietnam. "The people here understand that sometimes a sacrifice has to be made."
Monroe County sits near the border with West Virginia, where trucks hauling coal and steel rumble along narrow mountain roads. Half of all adults in this primarily white county lack high-school diplomas. Only 15% go to college. The median family income, at $30,000, is almost $12,000 less than the national average. The county has 11,600 adults, and about 2,000 of them -- or 17% -- are veterans. Nationwide, veterans constitute 13% of the adult population.
Other subtle factors contribute to the area's high rate of military service. The American Legion post in Beallsville, which has a freshly painted tank on its lawn, hosts Easter-egg hunts for local children, sponsors Little League baseball teams, provides coats and shoes for local children who can't afford them, and grants college scholarships every year to high-school seniors.
Three times a year veterans from Legion Post 768 put on their uniforms and visit Beallsville Elementary School and Beallsville High School to talk to students about military service. Students take field trips to Veterans Memorial Park, where a bronze marker lists the names of the six men from Beallsville and the five from other towns in Monroe County who died in Vietnam. (Monroe County lost 52 men in World War II, and three in Korea.) The cemetery where some of the men are buried is on a hill next to the school.
When Beallsville's Vietnam veterans came home, they heard that soldiers from other towns felt unappreciated, that some were ashamed to wear uniforms in public. Here the welcome was warm. Some Beallsville residents opposed the war in Vietnam, just as some oppose a war in Iraq, but no one questioned the honor of those who served.
"I'd probably go in again," says Dave Weir, 60, a Vietnam veteran, as he sat one morning at the Legion post, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "It's the best thing a kid can do coming out of high school," says his fellow veteran, David Morris, also 60.
As other communities around the country began organizing antiwar protests last year, Monroe County staged a rally in support of its men and women in the armed services. On Nov. 4, more than 500 people packed the town square in Woodsfield, by the county courthouse.
Fourteen fire trucks, two marching bands, dozens of Boy Scouts and members of two American Legion and two VFW posts paraded through town. Police barred traffic from the streets. Local resident Dorothy Ricer read a poem she wrote, that included these lines: "Now our children, husbands, wives must pay a price so steep/To stop these monsters in their tracks so we may freedom keep."
Relatives of those serving in the armed forces put flags in front of the courthouse, one for each soldier. Joy Dillon, 43, planted flags on behalf of her two sons, who are both in the Army. Matt, 25, is in Kuwait. Corey, 22, is in Fort Riley, Kan., and expects to leave any day for the Middle East.
When Mrs. Dillon graduated from high school in 1977, she says, "it wasn't cool to go into the service." Young men in Beallsville didn't wear long hair in the '70s, she says, but they did get "a little shaggy." Military recruiting, at that time, was less aggressive because the armed forces were trying to get leaner.
But when her children were old enough to join, Mrs. Dillon wasn't surprised by their interest in becoming soldiers. "It's not like they had nothing else to do or couldn't get a job," she says. "In this area, it's a highly regarded thing."
Corey Dillon studied welding in high school and wanted to become a machinist when he graduated in 1999. He could have gone to college, he says, but Army recruiters told him he could learn the same skills in the service without paying tuition. His choice was mostly pragmatic, he says, but he also reflected on Beallsville's losses in Vietnam as he made his decision.
"The veterans around Beallsville are real good with the younger kids about telling them how they felt back then," Mr. Dillon, an Army specialist, says. "They went into the military to do a job and they did it honorably. Somebody's got to do that."
After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Mr. Dillon says it became clear he might be thrust into combat.
"Anxious, sir," he says, when asked to describe how he feels about the approaching conflict. "Nobody wants to go. But if I've got to go, I'm ready."
Many people in Beallsville share Mr. Dillon's ambivalence. They would prefer not see a war, but they will support the effort once it begins.
"In 1990, I was behind them all the way," says Roger Schnegg, 50, an electrician who works in a coal mine. His brother Charles was killed in Vietnam. "This time I'm kind of mixed. We dragged it out and now the U.N.'s not behind us."
More opposed is Blake Lucas, 18, a senior and a distant cousin to Bobby Lucas, who was killed by a sniper in Vietnam. "I don't think the war that's brewing is just," he says. "I'd have to be drafted. That's the only way I'd go."
Toni Kanzigg was 16 when Bobby Lucas her brother, was killed. Five years later, another one of her brothers enlisted in the Marines. More than two decades later, her oldest son enlisted in the Army.
Mrs. Kanzigg, now 50, says the young people of Beallsville, and their parents, can't help but think of Vietnam when they enlist. "I'm sure they think about how many got killed and they know it could happen to them," she says. "But we have to have our freedom. They go willingly."
Her son, Baron Trigg, suffered a moment of doubt. The Gulf War began after he'd signed up, but before he'd started basic training. He asked his mother to help him get out of his commitment. Mrs. Kanzigg refused. "You can't make a choice and then take the easy way out," she recalls telling him.
"I didn't want to go, but I'm glad I did," says Mr. Trigg, who is married now, with two children, and works in a coal mine. "It straightened me out."
Though the military continues to attract young people here, most of Beallsville's high-school seniors say college is their first choice. Because of grants and loans available today, "it's much easier for them to go to college than it was for my generation," says Delmas Moore, 54, who teaches social studies at Beallsville High School.
But some high-school seniors say that since Sept. 11, they've started thinking that the country needs defending and that it might need more soldiers. "I'd be more likely to join if we were actually at war," says Antony Erchak, a 17-year-old senior. "We'd be going to war to stop people from attacking us."
Rhea Caldwell, also 17, said she still plans to go to college in the fall. But for the first time, she says, she can understand why it might be worthwhile to fight. "We come from such a small place," she says, "and this would represent something so big."