West Virginia town sends 200 of its own off to war Those who are left at home give one another strength WAR IN THE GULF

February 17, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

KEYSER, W.Va. -- Thelma Baker has given her best to the war effort.

On the same wintry day the 46-year-old Mrs. Baker sent her husband off to war, she also sent her son.

It was a day that made this wife weep -- and mother mourn.

"Proud? Course I'm proud," said Mrs. Baker about "the Baker boys," who serve in the same National Guard unit. "Scared? That, too."

For generations, this small, self-reliant community on the Potomac River has dispatched its citizen soldiers to war. This time is no different.

Across the nation, nearly 215,000 reservists and National Guardsmen -- many from small, rural towns like Keyser -- have been called to active duty in support of Operation Desert Storm. More than 76,000 of them are now serving in the Persian Gulf, many from the rural South, where service in the reserves is a tradition.

"It's tore up the community," said Keyser resident Shirley Squires, expressing a sentiment common to most National Guard towns. "It's tore up the home life. You take 200 people out of a town like this, and you notice it."

More than 200 Keyser residents, members of the National Guard or Army reserves, have been plucked from these West Virginia hills in the Eastern Panhandle to fight in the war. Gone are the police chief, sewer plant operator, city councilman and dog catcher, as well as truck driver Andrew Baker, 46, and his 18-year old son, Andrew Jr.

"They are us," said ex-Marine Joseph M. Gratto, president of Potomac State College, a residential junior college here that has lost seven students and two employees to service in the gulf. "We are all one."

So far, two town rallies have been held for "Our Boys," and a third is planned for next month. A roadside billboard near the self-described "Friendliest City in the U.S.A." pictures the flag, the words "red, white and blue" and the announcement: "These colors don't run."

Every Saturday since the war started, members of American Legion Post No. 41 have raised a row of U.S. flags -- 29 of them -- over two blocks of Main Street. The hillsides are swathed in yellow ribbons.

On Keyser's highest hilltop stands the empty armory of the 201st Field Artillery Unit, C Battery, of the National Guard -- the oldest National Guard unit in the nation, organized in 1735.

Headquartered across the Potomac in Cresaptown, Md., is the 372nd Military Police Reserve Co.; the 351st Ordnance Reserve Co. is stationed in nearby Romney, W.Va. In all, the three units have dispatched nearly 400 people to the gulf.

Few in this community of 5,800, have been untouched by the war.

The silent hope is that few will be scarred by it.

"You stay together on some things," said Lt. William Roy, the acting police chief. "This is one of them. We're proud of our boys. When you say the 201st, the 351st or the 372nd, that's home. I may not know you, but you got someone over there and you got trouble, you come to Keyser. You come to the police department, you'll get whatever we can give you. We look out for each other here. It's our way."

Lt. Roy's 19-year-old stepson, Army Spec. Damon Tillman, serves as Keyser's town crier. The young specialist, who is in the gulf with his field artillery unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., writes regularly to the local newspaper, the Mineral Daily News-Tribune, to let the local folk know how the troops are faring.

In a dispatch that was printed in Tuesday's edition of his hometown paper, Specialist Tillman vowed, "We will not let you down," and thanked Keyser residents for their continuing support.

"Those letters from Damon, the policeman's son, keep us going," said Helen Ratcliffe, who works at a candy store on Main Street. "I'll read those because I know him."

At Country Classics, a dress shop on Main, customer Diana Fife sought solace the other day from merchant Betty Davis. "I just buried a husband," Mrs. Fife was telling Mrs. Davis. "I don't want to bury a son, too. If anything happens around here, I don't know who'll take care of us -- all the men are gone. The thing that makes it easier is that everyone else here is going through the same thing. If you don't have someone in the gulf, you know someone who does."

Mrs. Fife's 21-year-old son, a land mine specialist based at Fort Sill, Okla., is stationed in the gulf. His is one of 209 names inscribed on yellow ribbons on the big fir tree in front of the red-brick county courthouse here.

"I hear it day in and day out," said Mrs. Davis. "The war is on everybody's mind. The lady across the street has a son over there and was in here this morning crying. She just misses him so much. Just listening to each other -- that's all we can do for one another."

West Virginia has no military bases, but many of its residents -- particularly those living in job-poor, rural regions like the Potomac Highlands, as these parts are called -- have looked to the National Guard and reserves for the extra income and camaraderie.

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