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A battle cry from the 'Volunteer County'

Editor's note: Vox Americana: Sixth in a series on public attitudes about war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2003


Lydia Lett may be only 2-1/2 years old, but she can recite the Pledge of Allegiance from start to finish. Perched atop a low table, clinging to her daddy's hand, the words tumble out, more sounds than sentences, like the latest jingle from Sesame Street.

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Her performance is testament to the strong patriotism that runs through these eastern Alabama hills, like the gold ore that gave the region its last shot at real wealth more than a century ago. Here, defending freedom is a way of life: Alabama has the highest percentage of National Guard enlistments in the US, and Clay County boasts more reservists and guardsmen per capita than anywhere else in the state. During the last Gulf War, this area's rate of service was so high that Alabama's legislature officially dubbed it the "Volunteer County."

In the tiny towns of Ashland and Lineville (total population 4,300), two units have already been called up. The largest, the 1208, moved a few weeks ago to Fort Benning, Ga., where it's awaiting news of its final destina-tion. A smaller command unit remains in Ashland, packed and ready to go. A third, a medical unit, has yet to be alerted.

Few here harbor illusions about what another war with Iraq might mean, both for the men and women serving in the military, and for the community they're leaving behind. Lineville High has lost its football coach. Ashland is losing its mayor. Lydia's mom, Julie, was deployed with the 1208, leaving Lydia and her 1-year-old sister, Hanna, with just their dad for up to a year.

But most here see the war as worth it, if only from a practical standpoint. Saddam Hussein represents a growing threat to the nation, they say, and the US might as well deal with him now as later. "Our motto is, you've got to get it started to get it over," says Leslie "L.P." Miles, a Lineville fireman who's in the National Guard.

Of course, there's a certain bravado that runs through the community. Locals are intensely proud of the local Guard units, and many talk of war in terms of "taking care of business."

At the Race Wings Café in Ashland, where the breakfast special is a "NASCAR egg," the men drinking coffee note that this has been a fighting county ever since the Civil War. "The call came in 1861, and everyone put on their britches and went," says Mike Howard, who teaches at Central Alabama Community College in nearby Alexander City.

Yet there's also a subdued worry hanging over the region. Highway signs urge motorists to pray for the troops. And yellow ribbons festoon shop windows and signposts in Ashland and Lineville - inescapable reminders of those who are gone, for now.

"There've been a lot of sad faces," acknowledges Michael Paschal, a local cattle farmer. In some ways, he says, the community's experience with the last Gulf War makes this departure even harder. Only two Clay County residents died in Desert Storm. But for those who stayed behind, "it was long and hard."

Strung just a few miles apart along Route 9, Ashland and Lineville are technically independent, and the towns nurse a fierce rivalry when it comes to high school football. But often, kids from the two schools wind up marrying each other, says Scotty Parker - which is how he met his wife, Melanie.

Ever since his unit was called up, Sgt. 1st Class Parker and his wife have been living in anxious suspension, waiting for word of departure. Their church has thrown him a fish fry. His packed duffel bags sit in the house. But the anticipation began long before the frying and packing: For weeks before Scotty was officially alerted, Melanie fretted that he'd miss the birth of their second son, Brody, born Jan. 6.

Scotty notes with a smile that for someone who joined the military "for college money," he's been deployed far more than he ever imagined - first to Egypt, then the Persian Gulf, and most recently Des Moines, to battle flooding.