For Military Bastions, Iraq Troop Withdraw is Not the End
Amid all the headlines of U.S. soldiers coming home from Iraq, it’s tempting to think of military communities filled with happily reunited families preparing to pick up where they left off.
That’s been a dominant story of the past weekend. Soldiers have returned to their home soil, and the president has met his promised goal of getting combat forces out of Iraq. Though, it should be noted, not everyone is home, as some 50,000 military advisers will stay behind for a longer term.
But Iraq was only half of the story for the country’s military communities that Patchwork Nation calls Military Bastions. In places such as Hopkinsville, Ky., near Fort Campbell, the deployments continue, as do the pressures on the local people and economies.
Four of the fort’s brigades — about 20,000 soldiers — are deployed in Afghanistan and at either the start or the middle of their time there. Seven years into the post-Sept. 11 fight against terrorism, there looks to be no end in sight. And that has a real impact in the surrounding town — economically and psychologically.
Through the Eyes of Fort Campbell
Fort Campbell is more than a military installation. It is a 164-square-mile city with 4,000 homes. It has seven schools (including a high school), a hospital, child-care facilities, chapels, banks, restaurants and service stations. And that is just on the base. Much of Fort Campbell exists on the other side of the walls — families who live in the surrounding area and businesses that serve them.
What does the deployment slowdown look like there? There are 10 security checkpoints to enter Fort Campbell. Right now the base reports that only six are open, some only part-time.
The most recent unemployment rate for Christian County was 10.9 percent for May — and that was an improvement. In February, it was more than 13 percent.
Military Bastions as a group are seeing a lower unemployment rate, in part because soldiers are coming home and releasing pent-up demand for goods and services. But the numbers can vary greatly depending on how the deployments are organized at the nearby bases. And in places with continuing deployments, it has taken a toll.
“I would say the attitude with civilians unless they are affected somehow is one of apathy,” said Chuck Henderson, a member of the Christian County Military Affairs Committee.
“The ones whose business is impacted are ready for all of this to get over or at least have our troops come home,” Henderson said. “This is their fourth and fifth deployment for some, and this one came right at a year from the last one. … The families are quite concerned, and things are pretty tense around them for obvious reasons. Everyone tries to carry on, but that is a challenge many days.”
Return to Normalcy?
In Military Bastions such as Hopkinsville, questions of policy, although they have a special significance for the community, often take something of backseat to more practical concerns. In fact, if you peruse the recent headlines on Afghanistan in the local newspaper, the Kentucky New Era, you’ll find no stories delving into policy.
The stories, rather, are about topics such as soldiers losing their lives and how families are coping.
“I do not know that anyone has a feeling about policy as much as they are tired and want some normalcy to their lives,” Henderson said. “Even when they come home, they only get six months before they are in a full-time training mode again to deploy.”
The problem for the Military Bastions is that even as some communities are welcoming soldiers home, normalcy for many still seems a long way off. The Obama administration and the Pentagon say troops are scheduled to start coming home from Afghanistan in July 2011, but Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the forces in Afghanistan, said he is not certain about that date.
And even if things go as scheduled, July 2011 is the start of the forces’ exit, not the end.
What that will mean for Fort Campbell, Hopkinsville and other Military Bastions for the 2010 and 2012 elections is far from clear. But it does mean that the issue hasn’t gone away with the exit of combat forces from Iraq.