Sunday, November 9, 2003

War delivers blow to town with a dedication to peace

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Kay Fisher, director of the Clinton County Historical Society, places a beret on the paratrooper jungle fatigues worn by Army Col. J. Hayes Metzger as she puts the final touches on a new display of Vietnam-era military uniforms at their museum in Wilmington.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
WILMINGTON, Ohio- On a dreary afternoon, on a landscape covered by bare trees and tilled brown earth, the countryside along Interstate 71 looked asleep.

In town, cars moved steadily along the busy little strip on Rombach Avenue. On the other side of town, a church sign read: "Life gives you the test first then teaches you the answer."

The test has just been given. This city of 12,000 people still waits for the answer.

One of this town's own, Army Sgt. Steven D. Conover, 21, died Nov. 2 with 15 other soldiers when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in Iraq. He was on his way home for a two-week leave.

His death - and America's war in Iraq - is particularly vexing in this old Quaker community. War has always been reviled here, yet many sons and daughters of Clinton County have served since before the Civil War.

The war in Iraq and its aftermath frustrate some.

"It's a dirty shame," farmer Charles Harren said. "Why didn't we do the job earlier? We had our chance in 1991. I'm 67, so I've seen my share of wars. I'm afraid we could have another Vietnam on our hands."

Some people ask, "Why?" The corn crop is cut for autumn, but the harvest of war continues.

A need for peace

Over at Wilmington College, in a white Victorian house on the campus, James Boland sat at a computer, tapping out a newsletter. The professor of education directs the Peace Center's efforts at the school founded by Quakers in 1870.

In 1975, Quaker peace activist Barbara Reynolds, donated her collection of peace films, books, articles and research files to the college. It was called the largest collection of such materials outside Japan.

At that time, memories of the worst of Vietnam were still fresh. Wilmington College had been a focal point of area anti-war activism.

"In those days, the faculty led a march to Columbus to protest the war," Boland said. "They were very involved against the war on our campus. That led to some serious problems. Some stores in Wilmington put up signs: 'No Wilmington College students allowed.' There was even a full-page ad in the local paper, supporting Gov. James Rhodes after the Kent State shootings.

"Back then, we had a lot of East Coast students. Now, most of our students come from southwestern Ohio. They reflect their communities. They are not anti-war activists. Only five to 20 people will stand out on a corner to protest the war today. They get a lot of honks [and other gestures] as people drive by. This is a conservative county."

After Vietnam, the college worked hard to make peace in the community. The students changed. To them, the war in Iraq is not an all-consuming issue.

"The soldier's death is a horrible thing," said Cathy Grimm, 20, a sophomore from Washington Court House. "But students don't talk about the war all that much. Maybe we should."

Added sophomore Renee Durham, 20, of Goshen: "Most of us don't talk about it. A few do. Personally, I'm kind of neutral on whether we should be over there."

The peace center's focus today is on teaching students to settle disputes among themselves.

"The death of this young man is further evidence that the world needs this kind of training," Boland said.

In their honor

Veterans Day in Wilmington will be special this year.

Coincidental to Sgt. Conover's death, Kay Fisher, director of the Clinton County Historical Society, and Shari L. Creech, the coordinator, have been planning a new exhibit.

"In Honor of Those Who Served" will open Tuesday at the Rombach Place Museum, 149 E. Locust Street, and continue through 2004.

The exhibit features local people's uniforms and military artifacts, from the Civil War through Vietnam. They include a Civil War field mess chest and hardtack; an Ohio Guard uniform from the Spanish-American War; World War I uniforms, artifacts and helmets; World War II parachutes, pilots' goggles and other items.

Several items on display come from the old Air Force base near Wilmington, where a glider unit was based during World War II. The base is now operated by Airborne Express.

"For a Quaker community," Fisher said, "we have a lot of soldiers who are serving. We have other people who are very opposed to the war. Actually, we have a long tradition of service here. Esariah Doan fought in the Civil War. They called him the Fighting Quaker."

People have lovingly packed up their fathers' and grandfathers' and great-grandfathers' uniforms and medals and sent them in.

A leather bomber jacket, owned by a local B-24 nose gunner named Tom Browning, features 30 bombs on the back - one for each mission he flew over German territory.

"All around, the walls are filled with the black and white photographs of local war heroes. There is one hero who didn't fight: H. Byron Horney, who worked in a local casting factory.

"The army wouldn't take Byron because he was almost blind in one eye," Creech said. "But he helped by becoming the Civil Defense man for the town. He walked round cautioning people to turn off their lights.

"His biggest contribution came with the pen. He wrote letters to every Clinton County soldier. They wrote back to him. Byron relayed their message to family members."

She picked up a stack of yellowed envelopes and gently thumbed through the letters. "The soldiers' families saved these letters all these years. They treasure them. It was a beautiful thing, what Byron did."

She paused, looked up at H. Byron Horney's photograph on the wall and said, "Such a beautiful thing ... "


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