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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 / October 9, 2007

Charleston, W.Va.

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.

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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.

"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.