Call-Up Stretches Alabama
CAMDEN, ALA. — BILLIE MCNEECE is doing more than her share for Project Desert Shield. She not only kissed her son goodbye on Dec. 2, but also her husband and ``six or seven'' cousins. In all, her extended family's contribution to the Alabama National Guard makes up about a fourth of the 46 Camden residents in the 440th Ordnance Battalion. Camden is a town of 2,200 about 35 miles south of Selma. By most accounts it's poor, and the National Guard has been relied upon for years as a source of extra income and college assistance. Yellow ribbon bouquets, in honor of those serving in the Gulf, flutter everywhere in little towns across Alabama.
The state, 22nd in the United States in population, has the largest number of members of the Army National Guard in the nation - 4,640 out of 20,000, says Guard spokesman Norman Arnold.
Already-strapped rural hospitals and clinics are losing health-care workers, schools are losing teachers. But the largest number of those activated are mechanics, carpenters, and machinists.
``It's gutted every little town in the South,'' says Mrs. McNeece.
In Camden the volunteer fire department lost its chief and five firemen. The police department sent two out of six officers.
``We're working seven days a week - all of us have to,'' says Camden police chief Robert Rogers.
The battalion was sent to Tent City in Saudi Arabia. But Billie's husband, William ``Tommy'' McNeece, was sent to Bahrain as a purchasing agent.
Up until Dec. 2 - when the 440th was sent to Fort Rucker, near Dothan, Ala. - Mr. McNeece drove a truck for the Lance snack foods company. The company offered to continue supplying medical insurance. He will remain in the profit-sharing program, and the company guarantees him a job when he returns, not necessarily in Camden.
Mrs. McNeece says the military pay her husband receives is not nearly what his salary was.
But the community, she says, has been very supportive - so much so that she wrote a letter to the newspaper thanking everyone. Several townspeople formed a Family Support Group and compiled a list of 45 people available to help families with carpentry, auto repair, child care, and transportation.
The Camden National Bank opened an account for Guard families with funds available for emergencies. Mrs. McNeece says 5,000 people showed up downtown to send off the guardsmen. ``Camden's an unusual town,'' she says. ``I don't know what more could have been done than was done.'' Her church has also been supportive. ``We've been singing `Onward, Christian Soldiers' for quite a while now,'' she says, wryly.
Mrs. McNeece isn't sitting around idly. She's the ``upholstery lady'' in Camden, and she's surrounded by cousins and second cousins. Carl's girlfriend, Leslie Luker, dropped by to visit. She's wearing a button that reads ``God Bless My Boyfriend.''
When asked how she feels about them being over there, Mrs. McNeece pauses a long time. ``I feel my men feel they're doing what's right,'' she says finally. ``I have to go along with that. I'm very proud of them and their attitude.''
Her 51-year-old husband joined when he was 17. Carl joined when he was 17 as well, against her wishes, she says. She says she was worried he would miss the opening of college, but they guaranteed his National Guard training would be over in time, and it was.
``The Guard's been good to us,'' she says. ``Now, if they're going to shoot at them, I might feel differently.''