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War Touches Rural Nebraska

October 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Three or four times a weeks Maryann Turek places flowers at the gravesite of her son, Mark, a 19-year-old Marine who was killed by an Islamic suicide bomber.

MARYANN TUREK: I go there to talk to him, just tell him about everyday life, what’s going on and his brother and sister’s lives.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s been here routine for 22 years. That was when mark and 240 other American servicemen were killed in the terrorist attack on the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in Lebanon. His unit was part of an international peace keeping force designed to separate warring Lebanese factions.

Two weeks later on a crisp fall day in 1983, nearly all of the residents of his hometown, Dwight Neb., turned out for Mark’s funeral.

MARYANN TUREK: I just couldn’t believe we were going through this. I mean, we were just common, ordinary people — nothing unusual about us. Why Mark? I just remember sitting in my room and crying for hours on end. I thought I cannot live through this.

KWAME HOLMAN: The NewsHour visited Dwight then and was welcomed by its residents who spoke with great pride about the many sons of Dwight who have served their country.

MAN: Well, I guess maybe it just falls back to small town living or small town patriotism to stand up for your country or stand up for what is right and if you’re called for duty, the boys in the community will produce.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tiny Dwight Nebraska has changed little since 1983. There still are only about 200 residents, many related to the Catholic Czech immigrants who settled this town. Also unchanged is the community’s strong bond to a tradition of military service, a connection that reaches back to the First World War.

The American Legion Hall is both physically and symbolically at the center of Dwight. Virtually every family in town has a relative who served in the military.

Sgt. First Class Steve Stanislav of the Nebraska National Guard just finished serving a year in Iraq in February. He believes so many people from small town America serve their country because they have a special appreciation for the land they live on.

SGT. FIRST CLASS STEVE STANISLAV: You walk out in the country. You see corn, milo, wild animals, guys on tractors, they’re supportive of keeping that free, and to me that’s, you know, that’s what we’re all here for. Support everybody else — your neighbors. That doesn’t exactly mean just your neighbors next door. That means the next state, the next country, everybody.

LEONARD SISSEL: We have to have a free country. All the men in this area served their share.

KWAME HOLMAN: Leonard Sissel earned a purple heart as a Marine corporal in Korea. His son Scott also decided to serve, a decision he says was influenced by Mark’s death in 1983.

SCOTT SISSEL: My dad come in my room and he said, hey, you want to join the Marine Corps? I said why? He said 240 Marines dead. Woo! Within seven months I joined the Marine Corps. I figured, you know, I owed something back to my country and the community. It was, you know, I watched my dad and my uncles, and a lot of the gentlemen here, you know, serve.

TED KOOSER: The little kids, the old people, they’re really dedicated to the idea of memorializing these people who gave their lives for this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Poet Ted Kooser says veterans hold a special place in the life of small towns like Dwight. Kooser is the nation’s current poet laureate and lives just a few miles away. Most Wednesdays he can be found having the special at Dwight’s only luncheon café. On this day it was baked steak.

WAITRESS: Ketchup?

TED KOOSER: No, thanks.

KWAME HOLMAN: He does not think people in rural America are more patriotic than those elsewhere but he does say when the country is at war, people in small towns feel it more personally.

TED KOOSER: Generally in a community like this, everybody knows everybody else. So they know the day that that guy leaves for Iraq. They know the day he’s coming home. You know, they are reading the letters that he is sending home. Everybody is involved, you know?

KWAME HOLMAN: Dwight’s strong military legacy isn’t the only reason young people in Dwight join up. For some the struggling rural economy is a factor. Many shop fronts on the main street are closed and there are no factories or large employers in Dwight.

SPOKESMAN: Tough meet tomorrow, you have 24 schools there. This is a big-time meet.

KWAME HOLMAN: High school history teacher Dale Nielsen also coaches the cross country team.

SPOKESPERSON: Here we go.

KWAME HOLMAN: He predicts rural communities always will provide a large share of young people for military service, even when there are controversial wars like the one in Iraq.

DALE NIELSEN: There’s not a lot of things around this area for kids to do. The agricultural sector is not what it used to be. Kids are looking to go to college or tech school. For a lot of kids who may not be headed to the university system, the military has become a pretty attractive alternative. I don’t think the politics of going to war matters much when it comes to people choosing to serve their country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among a group of seniors on the cross country team, opinion on that point was split.

NATHAN BARTEK: I don’t believe in fighting. But basically I really don’t know how I’m going to support myself for college without the military so I’ve been kind of debating whether or not joining, just for that cause.

ANTHONY AERTS: I think the politics matter quite a bit. We just got done running cross country. We’re training for a cross country meet. If I was to go to the meet tomorrow and put me on the course and didn’t have any marked and they said see you at the end. And they didn’t lay out a strategy or a plan, I wouldn’t run that meet. I wouldn’t go there. There’s too big of a risk involved not finishing at all. In Iraq I don’t see any plan to it; I don’t see any end to it, I guess. And I don’t see the motives for being there.

KWAME HOLMAN: Though support for the military is strong, that doesn’t stop people from raising questions about how the military is being used. Twenty-two years ago after the Marine barracks bombing, several veterans in Dwight questioned the role of U.S. military in foreign conflicts.

MAN: (1983) If we want the oil fields let’s go over there and take ‘em. That’s what Russia does when they want something. They just go ahead and take it over. Why in the hell can’t we do that? Those people over in Lebanon don’t know what they’re doing. So what are we doing over there?

KWAME HOLMAN: But World War II veteran Morris White said then the military must follow through on its commitments.

MORRIS WHITE: (1983) If you really want to do something, you’re going to have to pay the price if that is what it takes to get the job done.

KWAME HOLMAN: Paying the price in this case may mean soldiers dying?

MORRIS WHITE: This is right. Yes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today White feels differently about the war in Iraq.

MORRIS WHITE: As veterans we certainly support our troops and we have a lot of them over there and, in my opinion, they won the war. But at the present time we’re losing the peace. What happened in Beirut was wrong. And it’s wrong today for us to continue to lose troops over there.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, overall among the group of veterans and family members we asked to come to the Legion Hall, most were supportive of the Iraq war. Staff Sgt. Larry Urbanek served as a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam, the first Gulf War and in Bosnia. He expects he may soon be sent to Iraq as well.

STAFF SGT. LARRY URBANICK: We needed to do something after 9/11. Hopefully we can get the democracy going. They are bogged down. There’s no two ways about that. I think it’s going to be a commitment that we’re going to be there for five, ten years.

MARYANN TUREK: He kept telling me, mom, it’s peacetime, you know, everything’s going to be okay.

KWAME HOLMAN: Since her son Mark was killed in 1983, Maryann Turek’s feelings have changed dramatically. At the time she supported President Reagan’s decision to pull the Marines out of Lebanon four months after the bombing.

MARYANN TUREK: I remember at the time I was so upset and I just wanted us to pull out of Beirut. But, boy have I changed my mind because that was the beginning of everything. When the terrorists came and we did nothing, they continued to come. It was one thing after another — a ship here, something else here. Eventually it finally hit our country with the 9/11 deal.

When we go some place, we need to finish it. We cannot pull out. At this time we cannot do it because you know what? It will come to our land.

KWAME HOLMAN: Retired farmer and National Guard veteran Dennis Fiala agrees with that sentiment. His son Jimmy currently is serving near Tikrit.

DENNIS FIALA: We’re really protecting not just ourselves but everybody else from terrorism too by being over there. Hopefully we’re getting the right people.

KWAME HOLMAN: He and his 16-year-old daughter Susie look forward to every email they get from him especially when Iraq is in the news.

SUSIE FIALA: My heart skips a beat when I hear that somebody is killed especially if they talk about north of Baghdad because that’s where Tikrit is. But usually if there’s anything going to be in the news he kind of emails us to warn us so we know it’s not him.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Fiala family is keeping a yellow ribbon tied to the tree from their front yard until Jimmy returns home, which they hope will be in January.