The Sgt. York Syndrome

ALICE CORNETT

November 11, 1991|By ALICE CORNETT

LONDON, KENTUCKY. — London, Kentucky -- When U.S. casualty figures in the Persian Gulf War are analyzed, we may learn that this war ended not only the ''Vietnam Syndrome,'' as President Bush proclaimed, but also the so-called ''Sergeant York Syndrome,'' the disproportionate number of casualties among servicemen from Appalachia.

As a percent of its population, the Appalachian region has sustained higher losses in our wars of the past 50 years than has any other section of the country. West Virginia, the only state designated as wholly in Appalachia, had the highest casualty ratio in both World War II and the Vietnam conflict.

In Vietnam, West Virginians died in combat at a rate of 84.1 for every 100,000 of the state's male residents. The national average was 58.9 deaths per 100,000 males.

Parts of 13 other states are classed as Appalachian counties, and these outdistanced the non-Appalachian counties in Vietnam casualties. Kentucky's Appalachian counties averaged 84.2 deaths per 100,000 males; the rest of Kentucky averaged 64.4.

Ohio, generally perceived as a Midwestern state, has a few Appalachian counties along its borders with West Virginia and Kentucky. These averaged 78.4 losses in Vietnam per 100,000 males while for the rest of Ohio, the figure was 59.5.

Theories put forward to explain this startling disparity have focused on the character and the military heritage of residents of Appalachia as well as the region's perennially poor economy. Unshakable patriotism and a willingness to fight for his country have long been attributes of the Southern mountaineer. That tradition goes back to the Revolutionary War battle of Kings Mountain, where backwoodsmen from western Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia sent the British packing.

Breathitt County in Eastern Kentucky won distinction during World War I as the only county in America without a single draftee. Its military quota was readily filled by enlistments.

Poverty cannot be overlooked, however, as an impetus to joining up. With limited access to higher education, and never enough jobs to go around, many Appalachians have found few alternatives to military service. The probability of being killed in war seemed scarcely greater than that of being killed in a coal mine.

In a 1976 Washington Monthly article, James Fallows called Vietnam ''the class war,'' pointing out that although Selective Service was in effect, Vietnam was our first war in which all segments of American society did not participate equally. The wealthier and better-educated remained in college, sought other legal loopholes to the draft or left the country. Those who did the fighting, Mr. Fallows wrote, came by and large from the underclasses -- Appalachians, blacks from the inner cities and the South, Hispanics from the barrios.

While this argument would seem to have validity, it does not account for unequal losses based on a purely geographical standpoint. Statistics make clear that an Appalachian's chance of dying in battle for his country has been significantly greater than that risk has been for other Americans. It appears that certain characteristics -- including a particular aptness for combat -- have made him a prime target.

''Appalachians make good soldiers, and the Army knows it,'' said Steven Giles, chief psychologist at the Mountain Home, Tenn., Veterans Administration Medical Center.

Dr. Giles, who compiled a study of U.S. war casualties, is credited with coining the term ''Sergeant York Syndrome.'' Sgt. Alvin York was the Tennessee mountain man who single-handedly captured 90 German soldiers in the Argonne in 1918 and received the Medal of Honor. York had been a conscientious objector to the draft, but was persuaded that military service was not incompatible with his beliefs.

Although they serve in all branches of the armed forces, Appalachians are especially valued by the Army. As recruits, they arrive already familiar with the rifle, the infantryman's weapon, and with a knowledge of rough terrain. Officers interviewed by Dr. Giles told him that men from Appalachia were preferred for patrols, or to ''walk point'' -- lead the platoon into unknown territory.

Nine percent of U.S. military forces in the Korean War were from areas of Appalachia, but 18 percent of the Medals of Honor awarded in that war went to Appalachians. In Vietnam, they made up 8 percent of our troops and received 13 percent of the Medals of Honor.

In the Persian Gulf war, U.S. fighting tactics changed dramatically. The emphasis shifted from the foot soldier to sophisticated weapons systems delivered by aircraft or launched from remote sites. The new combat style appears to hold a promise that the unequal losses in past conflicts may never be repeated. In fact, our casualties in Desert Storm were so light that, for statistical purposes, they may be inconclusive -- and it is too soon to say whether the Sergeant York Syndrome still operates. Perhaps it will not outlast this century, or this generation.

E7

Alice Cornett is a journalist in eastern Kentucky.

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