Losses color Alabama town’s view of war | VailDaily.com

Losses color Alabama town’s view of war

Peter Whoriskey
Damien Rollan, a high school senior from Prattville, Alabama has enlisted in the Marines; although skepticism toward the war is deepening in this small town, army enlistment in Prattville runs roughly three times the national average, making it a top place for recruiting. Illustrates ALABAMA-RECRUITS (category a), by Peter Whoriskey (c) 2006, The Washington Post. Moved Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo.)

PRATTVILLE, Ala. – There is no anti-war movement in this small Southern city – in fact, locals boast, just the opposite.Army enlistment per capita runs roughly three times the national average, making it one of the top places in the country for recruiting. School authorities in this conservative middle-class suburb say between 25 and 50 seniors from Prattville High – out of a class of roughly 450 – sign up each year for the military. They are gung-ho.”Doesn’t that make a mayor proud?” asked Mayor Jim Byard. “Folks here are just very patriotic.”Yet even in Prattville, skepticism toward the war in Iraq is deepening.This city of 30,000 people buried its second soldier last week, a popular 19-year-old who was the high school quarterback two seasons ago. Doubts about the war have coalesced around his death.Even many of the recent recruits – who might be assumed to be most supportive of the conflict – now harbor doubts. They’re willing to fight, they said in numerous conversations this week, and they are loath to protest, but they’re just not as sure about the war’s purpose.”This is a war we can’t win,” at least not the way its being fought now, said Damien Rollan, 17, a wiry motorcycle-riding daredevil who has signed up for the Marines.He paused over the thought of its possible futility, squinting.”I’m a little worried if I get sent to Iraq and die,” he said. “Then it’s a wasted life for a lost cause.”Russell Meadows, a drummer in the high school band who has signed up for the Army Reserve, said the recent deaths “made everyone realize this is serious and not just a game.”Chris Childs, a senior who grew up playing a rifleman and drummer boy in Civil War re-enactments and makes films in his spare time said: “At first I supported the war, but lately I don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t understand why we’re still there and getting attacked.”He has signed up for the Army National Guard. He paused.”But whatever they ask me to do, I’ll do it.”To be sure, Prattville’s new enlistments offered a range of opinions about the war.None offered criticism of President Bush. None advocated pulling out immediately. Some said it was a Christian duty to give other countries their freedom. And Army and Marine recruiters say this year’s yield is as large as last year’s.The attitudes here stand at odds over national polls on Bush and the war. Support for the war has dipped nationally to less than 40 percent, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling.But the recruits’ willingness to serve is not the same as an uncritical belief in the war.”The kids don’t look at it as being for or against the war,” Principal Lee Hicks, a former Marine, said of those signing up. “They’re just for the country.”In Prattville, Byard said, “I think folks want to get our guys home.”Prattville and surrounding Autauga County ranked last year in the top 100 places in the United States in terms of Army recruits per capita, according to an analysis by the National Priorities Project, a liberal research group based in Northampton, Mass., that questions Bush’s Iraq policy. Other smaller counties scored higher per capita, but Autauga generated 31 enlistees for the Army and Army Reserve in 2005, according to the analysis. Several others enlisted with the Marines.A pleasant suburb of Montgomery, Prattville is a place where Friday-night football reigns as the leading social event. Many of the city’s residents work in the state capital, in neighboring Montgomery County, or at the nearby Hyundai plant, the paper mill or Maxwell Air Force Base.The graduates have other options. About 60 percent of the Prattville senior class annually goes on to college, school officials said. But recruiters from one branch or another visit the high school at least once a week, Hicks said, sometimes bringing out Humvees and other vehicles to wow their audience.The recruiters often try to put the potential dangers of military service in this perspective:”How many murders have there been this month?” asked Army Command Sgt. Major Cory Olson of the Montgomery Recruiting Battalion, which handles Prattville. “I don’t have the statistics. But I’m willing to bet that more people have been killed in the U.S. than in any of the places we are currently occupying.”The homicide rate in the United States was 5.5 people per 100,000 population, according the Bureau of Justice Statistics, far lower than the mortality rate among American troops in Iraq.The Prattville recruits said they wanted to “see the world,” or gain college tuition money, or said they simply wanted to serve their country, a devotion they considered a quintessential “Southern thing.””They say about 40 percent of Americans support the war, and I’d say a good 30 to 35 percent of that live in the South,” said William Reed, a Prattville High student entering the Marines. “People here are brought up to love their country.”Cean Sims, 17, described himself as something of a class clown.”You know how they say that thing about ‘the few, the proud, the Marines’?” he asked. “I want to prove it to myself that I can do it. More than that, I want to prove it to other people. Throughout my life, I’ve been underestimated and discouraged.”While he was certain of his motivation, however, he seemed mystified by the politics of the war.”We’ve been over there keeping the peace. But the Iraqis don’t seem to see what we’re trying to do,” he said.The deaths of the two Prattville soldiers were a constant point of reference for the recruits. Army Sgt. Carlos Pernell, 25, died June 6 after a mortar attack on his base. Then Pfc. Stephen Bicknell, the former quarterback, died Oct. 15 after the Humvee he was in struck a land mine.He is survived by his wife and high school classmate, Miranda, 18, who is five months pregnant.”I’m here … I’m in the combat zone,” Bicknell wrote in his last posting on MySpace. “It’s not really combat though when ur people r the only ones gettin killed … we already took 6 casualties in the area and 2 deaths … they died or got injured by IEDs … they suck!”Bicknell originally left Prattville to attend the University of West Alabama on a scholarship, his mother said, but then he dropped out after becoming disillusioned with its football program. To the surprise of his family, he enlisted.”Being a mom, I cried,” said Linda Bicknell, the owner of a beauty salon in town. “I said, ‘Why? Why now? There’s a war going on.’ ” She said her son was not the type to question. “Stephen is one of those kids who you can tell what to do, where to go, how to do it, and he just does it.”She added: “I can’t say I’m either for the war or against the war. I just know we’re in deep, and we better finish the job.”Otherwise, she said, would be to risk having sacrificed “all those lives in vain.”

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