In West Virginia, a humble bid to thank troops

Thanks! Plain and Simple shows appreciation for service, with an eye to keeping vets in the state.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bob Henry Baber was shot during the Vietnam War, but not while defending a patch of jungle. The antiwar protester, who never served in the military, was part of a riot outside Los Angeles in 1971, and took a bullet from a police officer during the ensuing fracas. Mr. Baber would spend two months in jail for his involvement in the incident.

Hershel "Woody" Williams was also wounded during wartime, fighting with US marines on Iwo Jima during World War II. Nearly a month before he was injured, snipers from Japanese pillboxes had his unit pinned down, and Mr. Williams stormed them with a flamethrower, allowing his fellow leathernecks to advance. The action would win him the Medal of Honor.

Baber and Williams may seem unlikely friends, but a new war has brought them together. The former protester and the war hero got to know each other working on behalf of Thanks! Plain and Simple, a West Virginia group that aims to show support for US military veterans and service members, even if some participants disagree on the merits of the Iraq war itself.

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"Everybody ... on the board of Thanks! Plain and Simple knows my history, including Woody, and we're all OK with it. They're OK with me and I'm OK with them," says Baber. "I think how we view it is, freedom is complex."

Theirs is a modest undertaking: A Thanks! Plain and Simple event here over Columbus Day weekend drew several dozen people, most of them already involved in veterans' issues. But inherent in the message is a hope that such public shows of appreciation for service members from West Virginia – a rural state that keenly feels the loss of each young person – may create the kind of climate that will entice returning veterans to stay, work, and raise families here.

A woman's inspiration

Thanks! Plain and Simple is the brainchild of Anne Montague, who was inspired to create the nonprofit after watching candidates debate the Iraq war during the last presidential election. As they discussed abstract policies, she was reminded of how she felt during the Vietnam War, wondering what would happen to the individual soldiers afterward.

"Rather than argue [about the war] … what about the fact that we can just show [veterans] some really good ways that we just value them as people and stay away from the illogic of being angry with the individual because you're angry with the cause," says Ms. Montague. To this day, many of the group's board members don't know their colleagues' personal stance on the war.

Its main goal is to help West Virginians find ways to appreciate the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines from their communities and to assist discharged servicemen and servicewomen with the transition back to civilian life. Members of Thanks! Plain and Simple, say this goal is as important for the state's future as it is for the individual service members.

Hard times in W.Va.

With a struggling economy, West Virginia offers little in the way of opportunity for budding professionals.

"Part of what has happened in West Virginia is that many of our young men and women do not opt to go on to college," says Pauline Shaver, a board member and retired Army colonel. "The military was a way to afford them some financial support [for education] or maybe to learn a trade." Thanks! Plain and Simple wants to ensure that these young people have the ability to return and use the skills they've acquired in the military to better their state.

"We want to encourage them to come back and stay in the state," explains Ron Wroblewski, a Vietnam veteran and president of the organization. "The way to keep people in the state is to make sure that they can be employed." Mr. Wroblewski says the group has started working with local businesses and industries to create greater job opportunities for veterans. West Virginia ranks second from the bottom among the states for median income, and its poverty rate is the fifth highest in the US.

Additionally, the group is trying to collect $35,000 to hire a veteran to spearhead its initiative to design the first national monument to honor mothers, especially those of soldiers.

While the group is officially apolitical, in practice it has difficulty attracting widespread support.

On Saturday, Thanks! Plain and Simple hosted a marble tournament here to promote its new "Marbles for Remembering" program. It's a simple notion: A service member receives a set of three marbles, keeps one, and gives the other two to loved ones, to remember one another by. Although the event was promoted on local radio and open to the public, most attendants were either connected to various veterans' groups or a local marble club called American Marbles.

"I think the left is skittish about our organization," says Baber, the Vietnam-era antiwar activist. "Everybody on the left [who] I know makes that distinction [between supporting the troops versus supporting the war], but they seem a little nervous about breaking bread with people on the right. I think their ultimate concern is that … if you're supporting the troops, or the organization is supporting the troops, then you're supporting the war."

Though Baber sometimes disagrees with his fellow board members' political leanings, he says it's ultimately not a problem. "For me, it's just walking on that thin, narrow path that so many Americans, I don't think, have found their way to," says Baber.

"I've learned an important lesson from Vietnam – that I think many on the left have learned – that there is a separation between policy and the service people," he says, explaining his transition from Vietnam protester to serving on the board of a support-the-troops organization.

In the meantime, Thanks! Plain and Simple feels that it is making progress. The Benedum Foundation just awarded it a $50,000 grant for educating 100 communities in West Virginia about how to support soldiers when they return from deployments or are transitioning back into civilian life. Members also hope to see others from around the country eventually open chapters of Thanks! Plain and Simple in their own states.

Says Williams, the World War II veteran: If the US can provide all criminals a fair trial, at the very least, service members deserve similar leeway. "They're doing everything we want them to do,' he says, "though we may not agree with the cause or the politics that got us involved."

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