Raised in the projects in an old steel town, Edward “Willie” Carman saw the Army as a chance to build a new life.
“I’m not doing it to you, I’m doing it for me,” the then-18-year-old told his mother, Joanna Hawthorne, after coming home from high school one day and surprising her with the news.
When Carman died in Iraq three years ago at age 27, he had money saved for college, a fiancee and two kids – including a baby son he’d never met. Neighbors in Hawthorne’s mobile home park collected $400 and left it in an envelope in her door.
“When they came and told me he was gone, oh my God, it just crushed me,” Hawthorne said. “There was actual pain in my heart. It felt like someone was in there just ripping it apart.”
McKeesport is not alone in its mourning. Nearly half of the more than 3,100 U.S. military fatalities in Iraq have come from towns like McKeesport, where fewer than 25,000 people live, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. One in five hailed from hometowns of less than 5,000.
The Census Bureau said 56 percent of the population in 2005 lived in towns under 25,000 and in unincorporated areas, but it could not provide the number of people living only in communities of less than 25,000. The 2000 census showed 16 percent of the population lived in unicorporated rural areas.
Many of the hometowns of the war dead aren’t just small, they’re poor. The AP analysis found that nearly three quarters of those killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average.
Some are old factory towns like McKeesport, once home to U.S. Steel’s National Tube Works, which employed 8,000 people in its heyday. Now, residents’ average income is just 60 percent of the national average, and one in eight lives below the federal poverty line.
On a per capita basis, states with mostly rural populations have suffered the highest fatalities in Iraq. Vermont, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Delaware, Montana, Louisiana and Oregon top the list, the AP found.
There’s a “basic unfairness” about the number of troops dying in Iraq who are from rural areas, said William O’Hare, senior visiting fellow at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, which examines rural issues.
Diminished opportunities are one factor in higher military enlistment rates in rural areas. From 1997 to 2003, 1.5 million rural workers lost their jobs due to changes in industries like manufacturing that have traditionally employed rural workers, according to the Carsey Institute.
Rural communities are “being asked to pay a bigger price for this military adventure, if I can use that word, than their urban counterparts,” O’Hare said.
As a result, in more than a thousand small towns across the country – from Glendive, Mont., to Barnwell, S.C., to Caledonia, Miss., and from Hardwick, Vt., to Clinton, Ohio – friends and families have been left struggling to make sense of a loved one’s death in Iraq. It’s a struggle that hits with a special intensity in tight-knit, small towns.
“In a small community, even if you don’t know somebody’s name you at least know their face, you’ve seen them before, talked to them maybe,” said Chuck Bevington, whose 22-year-old brother Allan, from Beaver Falls, Pa., died in Iraq, after volunteering for a second tour. “A small community feels it a lot tighter because they’ve had more contact with each other.”