Monday, May 31, 2004

Small towns bear heavy share of war dead

Half of 798 killed come from burgs of less than 40,000, paper says

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS - Nearly half of the roughly 800 Americans who have died supporting U.S.-led operations in Iraq came from small towns, a newspaper reported Sunday.

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After analyzing military records of 798 Americans killed in Iraq as of Wednesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said 46 percent of them were from communities of less than 40,000 residents at least 25 miles from a populated place of 100,000 or more. The figures include accidental and non-combat related deaths.

Such small towns make up only about 27 percent of the population, but they have claimed nearly as many war dead as metropolitan areas that make up the other 73 percent.

Men and women from rural areas disproportionately enlist to continue a family history of military service, escape small-town life or flee economically depressed areas that offer little hope, according to experts.

Often, high school graduates with limited options are drawn to the military by its economic packages. "Whether it's for money for college or just a way to make a living, (inductees) are looking at the money," said Army Staff Sgt. William M. Cox, a recruiter in Klamath Falls, Ore., a town of just under 20,000 residents.

The newspaper said Orangeburg, S.C., lost three young men to the war, as many or more than the toll in cities including Kansas City, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Cleveland.

Some argue the inequality in opportunities between small-town Americans and others has created an unfair system that is a de facto draft.

The monthly military pay out of boot camp, for example, averages about $1,300, including housing and food. Additional recruitment incentives include $65,000 to pay off current student loans and up to $20,000 in enlistment bonuses.

"Part of that volunteering is a form of economic conscription," said David R. Segal, chief of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "They're not being selected by the Selective Service System; they are being selected by the economy."

Marine Lance Cpl. Gary Van Leuven, 20, of Klamath Falls, Ore., was killed in April in Iraq near the Syrian border, a month after being awarded a Purple Heart. He was on his second tour of duty.

"Gary didn't want to join; he just wanted to go to school," Trevor Van Leuven, 17, said of his older brother. "He just wanted to make some money."

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