Pa. region sees benefits, costs of war

November 11, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

TOBYHANNA, PA. — Donna Kimmel tries not to think what could happen after her son's Army brigade heads to war in June. But she's grateful for one side effect of the combat in Iraq: the thriving business at the military facility where she and her husband work.

"I hate to say it - you don't like to think that anybody would be losing their life for this - but that's what we're here for," she said of her job at the Tobyhanna Army Depot. "We support the war fighter."

Kimmel, 43, is a supply systems manager at Tobyhanna, which makes and repairs electronics used on the front lines, and where President Bush is to deliver a Veterans Day speech today.

Residents were relieved when Tobyhanna, the region's largest employer, with 4,300 workers, escaped the latest round of military base closures. Instead, it will gain jobs, as other installations are shuttered.

It's one glimmer of hope in hard-pressed northeastern Pennsylvania, where deep anxiety about the economy runs second only to concern about the war, and where some voters have lost faith in Bush, according to opinion polls that mirror the national trend.

Visit from Bush

When the president arrives to salute veterans and defend his policies, he'll see a community touched by and torn over Iraq, patriotic people whose livelihood is tied to a war effort that could rip their families apart.

In this town in the Poconos, where it's rare to see a car without a support-the-troops ribbon and where American flags fly from most front porches, many residents offer unqualified support for Bush and the war.

"I love him; he's my commander in chief," Kimmel said over an after-work tequila shot at the local VFW hall. "I support everything he's doing."

Many others have turned against the president because of the human cost of the war, underlined last month when a National Guard post in nearby Scranton lost five members in an attack near Baghdad.

"When you see almost every day that there's more and more of our soldiers being killed, and it doesn't seem like [Bush] has an answer as to when we will be finished there and when will our people be able to come home, I have a problem with it," said Betty Probert, 58, of Hazleton, who voted for Bush but questions her decision.

Bush, who will address an invited audience of Tobyhanna workers, National Guardsmen, local veterans and others, is working to answer such criticism.

His visit seems tailored to a place with one of the nation's largest populations of veterans, where conservatism runs deep and stoicism in the face of steep challenges seems to come naturally.

"We're proud of our kids," said Jerry Halloran, 47, an insurance salesman and Bush supporter. "Nobody wants their son or daughter to go to war, but they're there for a reason. They don't want to be there, but they are, and they're going to do the job."

There are signs, however, that the resolve is flagging. Rick Burke, 29, a car salesman, is reminded of the war every day at the Ford dealership where he works in nearby Wilkes-Barre. Just across the street is the National Guard post that has deployed several units to Iraq.

As his friends go off to fight, Burke, who once supported Bush and the war, is starting to believe that the president intentionally misled the country about Saddam Hussein's weapons to justify the 2003 invasion.

"Was the intelligence faulty so we could go to war in Iraq? That's my question," Burke said. "I want to make sure it's a just war, and I don't really think so anymore. I'd hate to see one of my friends die for something that should have never happened."

He and others worry about energy prices, especially the cost of home heating oil this winter. They also say the government's ham-handed response to Hurricane Katrina intensified their fears about an attack that could hit close to home. But the war tops their list of concerns.

Bush has tried to shift the spotlight from the death and destruction in Iraq to more positive developments there, such as the elections in January, ratification of a constitution last month and U.S. efforts to train Iraqi security forces.

Tobyhanna is another opportunity to highlight a hopeful side of the war, analysts said.

The Army installation is "a huge job center, with ripple effects throughout the economy," said Thomas J. Baldino, a political scientist at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

Bush "gets a twofer with this visit: Not only does he get to highlight his commitment to fighting and winning this war, which he talks about a lot, but he's reminding people that this is good for the economy and that they can feel good about their contribution," he said.

That is particularly important in a place where families of National Guard soldiers and military reservists feel they are taking a financial hit because of the war, said Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, a Democrat who represents the region.

Some National Guardsmen are pulled out of higher-paying jobs when they are activated, he said, adding an economic hit to an emotional one.

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