On an unseasonably cool August day, Zola Hamlin pulled up to a small square cemetery on the outskirts of town, saluted the headstone of her fallen grandson and offered a somber thought for the parents and grandparents of future soldiers who might get caught again in an Iraq war.
“I listen to the news every night and I pray for the families that lost their loved ones,” she said. “It tears at your heart forever.”
In another part of town, Donald Storm thought about the war as well, particularly the sacrifices that soldiers made securing a country that’s now in a new stage of chaos.
As Iraq crumbles and President Barack Obama assesses the American role in the country, Storm looks back on lost opportunities and on the U.S. decision to pull out when it did.
“I feel a great sense of loss, but it just didn’t occur now,” Storm said. “It occurred when we started telling people our plans” to leave.
Storm is speaking as the former top official of the Kentucky National Guard, a man with 37 years in the military who saw 14 of his citizen-soldiers die in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. They were people who’d been quick to volunteer, eager to serve.
He’s also a native of London, a town that suffered more than its share of loss providing the nation with troops to prosecute the war in Iraq. Three years ago, as America’s presence in that war was winding down, McClatchy visited the picturesque town in the hills of southeastern Kentucky to chronicle its war losses. McClatchy recently returned to ask – given the turmoil in Iraq – whether those sacrifices were worth it.
Today, Storm is mostly retired. He maintains a role in a family security company and spends his summer days fishing. He also monitors the collapse of Iraq on the news.
“It’s disappointing. It’s disappointing,” he said. “I don’t think anybody associated with the operations in Iraq thought we could just leave these folks and they would have the infrastructure or anything else to sustain without some kind of help in the long term.”
“You either win a war or you lose a war,” he added. “You don’t just walk away from it.”
A sense of conflict and disappointment is prevalent among many in London, as well as nationally.
Asked whether the Iraq War was worth the costs, only 18 percent said yes in a recent CBS News-New York Times poll. That’s down from about half in 2003, as the war was beginning.
Moreover, large segments of the population don’t think the U.S. should have pulled out when it did. More than 40 percent in the poll said the U.S. should have kept some troops there; a majority of Republicans thought so.
In a bright-red county such as Laurel, where London is the county seat and Republican Mitt Romney won 81 percent of the presidential vote in 2012, the pro-military attitudes run deep.
At the county courthouse, a red-brick, white-steepled building on South Main Street, one memorial commemorates the Battle of London from the Civil War, a second remembers all who gave their lives in the nation’s wars and a third celebrates all veterans – living or dead, branch by branch. Flags from military branches and veterans’ organizations fly above the memorial.
Three soldiers killed in Iraq listed London as their hometown, and another who’d grown up here but had since moved also died. The area has one of the highest rates in the country of veterans collecting disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a McClatchy analysis of Department of Veterans Affairs data.
For a certain generation of locals, the chaos in Iraq brings reminders of their own war – Vietnam – and the way a decade of death, disability and destruction ended with the U.S. pulling out.
At the AMVETS Post 116 south of town, a wall is adorned with photos of fatigue-clad soldiers. One shows a young Joe Gross, perched atop an anti-aircraft gun named “Whispering Death.”
Recently, Gross sat on a chair under the post’s front awning, watching traffic on Highway 25 roll by. Now 61, he helps run the post, which features Tuesday meetings during which veterans often talk about post-traumatic stress and other ailments.
“A lot of the guys are carrying an awful lot of scars after 40 years,” he said. Younger veterans in the county are as well, although mental health professionals say they have yet to successfully reach them. Oftentimes, those ailments remain hidden until middle age.
As for the chaos in Iraq, Gross said, “I’m conflicted about it myself.”
“They’re doing what they did in Vietnam,” he said. “We’ve got the might. But politics is what’s killing everything.”
Gross came from a family of five boys, all of whom served during the Vietnam era. His views, he said, would match his brothers’, as well as those of most veterans he knows.
Among those veterans are young ones such as Adam Campbell, who was severely wounded in Afghanistan, eventually spending 280 days in a hospital bed recuperating and undergoing five surgeries.
“I honestly feel we pulled out of Iraq too soon,” he said. “It was something done to gain political favor. All the loss we had, all the guys who made tremendous sacrifices. And for what?”
And they are older ones, such as Bill Jones, who helps lead a local chapter of Disabled American Veterans. Pulling out of Iraq “was the worst mistake we could have ever done,” he said.
“I thought it at the time, and I still do,” he said over coffee at a Waffle House. “If you go and you spill your blood over there, and you come back and then it was all for naught – why did you go to start with? It doesn’t make any sense. Why sacrifice our men and woman in uniform if you’re not going to try to win the war?”
For Zola Hamlin, who was visiting the cemetery, reminders of her grandson’s sacrifice are all around. They are for other residents, too: The town has a Sgt. Chris Hamlin Memorial Lane.
Chris Hamlin joined the Junior ROTC at North Laurel High School and ultimately served multiple Army tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Next to his headstone is one for his grandmother, end date unknown. His marks the day in May 2007 he was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
On days she cleans his gravesite, Hamlin also salutes it, raising her arm in a slow-motion tribute. She’s been to funerals of other London-area soldiers, and she fears what may happen in Iraq next.
“So many people have already lost their lives over there,” she said softly.
At the Wildcat Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership that same night, Col. Charlie Jones of the Kentucky National Guard was doing his part to help remember those who did.
Pulling up on his Harley-Davidson Road Glide, Jones set up for a presentation before a few dozen leather-and-denim clad riders.
Although he was a native son of London and a member of the Harley club, he’d ridden 100 miles from the Kentucky National Guard headquarters in Frankfort to be here.
His task? Raise money for a memorial to Kentucky guardsmen and women who died in service to their country. Officials are vetting about 460 names for inclusion, including 18 from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“These are Kentuckians who were in the Kentucky Guard who died in the line of duty doing what we asked them to do,” he said. “I get personally attached to this – I commanded a brigade in Iraq in ’06. In 2003, we lost our first casualty, a Kentucky guardsman killed in Iraq. A young kid by the name of Sgt. Darrin Potter.”
He then talked about the last name to go on the list, and was quiet for a moment.
“I pray that last name is the last one to put on this, but I’m realistic enough to know that’s not going to happen,” he said. “Wars are not going to go away. Kentucky guardsmen are not going to stop answering the call.”
He collected two checks for the memorial, totaling $700. He left one thing unsaid, something he doesn’t talk about much in public.
Jones’ son, Sgt. Charles Jason Jones, was one of the Kentucky guardsmen who died, on Sept. 20, 2006, in Baghdad of non-combat-related causes. He’s a graduate of South Laurel High School in London; his name will be on the memorial, too.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said Sgt. Charles Jason Jones was killed. He died of non-combat-related causes.