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America's anomaly: The place where war is a constant

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Mon October 10, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Soldiers from Fort Drum, New York, have deployed to Afghanistan since 2001
  • Fort Drum is intertwined with communities around it, different than many military bases
  • Even locals with no direct military connection say they have felt war's constant impact
  • A new polls suggests that in most American communities, the connection to the war is minimal

Watertown, New York (CNN) -- Summer is nearing an end, and on this Saturday, a street festival is one last celebration of the season, sure to give way to the bitter chill of winter in upstate New York. People gather downtown before buildings faded from glory and a memorial to the wars fought by Watertown's own.

Afghanistan, now a decade strong, has not been added yet to remembrances of the great World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. It's not necessary. There are living memorials instead.

A boombox plays "I Miss You Daddy, While You're Away."

Bethanne Vandertang begins her solo performance, her slight frame brightened by the yellow T-shirt of her dance troupe.

Her father, Master Sgt. Gary Vandertang, a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division, stationed in nearby Fort Drum, is in Afghanistan. He has deployed six times since 2001, missing almost half of his 11-year-old daughter's tender years.

Bethanne Vandertang\'s father has deployed five times since 2001.
Bethanne Vandertang's father has deployed five times since 2001.

It's impossible not to be moved by a child's tribute to her father's sacrifices. But in Watertown, on the outskirts of the vast military base that has given soldiers all 10 years of the war, Bethanne's performance is beyond moving. It's visceral.

In the North Country, as the locals call this part of New York, Afghanistan is as much in people's hearts as it was a decade ago, when the horrific events of September 11 pushed America to war.

Elsewhere, Afghanistan slid down many rungs in the ladder of public interest. Americans are paying far less attention to war now than at earlier stages of the fighting, according to a Pew Research Center study published Wednesday. But not here.

War makes unwanted, life-arresting visits; crashes into homes and entire neighborhoods just as assuredly as a January blizzard.

The first battalions from the 10th Mountain Division marched to war in October 2001. Ever since, soldiers from Fort Drum have left their loved ones and boarded planes that ferried them to Kabul, Kunduz and Korengal over and over again until those foreign places rolled off tongues as though they were right off Route 11.

In this part of New York, just a few miles from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that delineates America from its northern neighbor, the yellow ribbons that went up all over this nation never went away. They cover the facade of Watertown's City Hall and are even painted on concrete grain silos along narrow highways.

The stars and stripes flutter in the breeze in front of every house, no matter a mansion or a trailer plopped down on a piece of black dirt.

Flags lower to half mast with every casket that comes home -- the 10th Mountain has lost about 270 soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The last was 1st Sgt. Billy Siercks, who died September 28 in Logar, Afghanistan.

Here, war is not a rude blip that punctures the hum of daily routine. It is a constant.

Saying "Welcome Home" is as common as wishing "Happy Birthday." Discounts for the military at popular places like Dano's Pizza are a norm, not some special favor.

Afghanistan is now the longest-running war America has fought with an all-volunteer military. But only about one half of 1% of the population has served in uniform, and military and civilian worlds rarely collide anymore.

In the darkness of that disconnect, military men and women deployed repeatedly first to Afghanistan, then to Iraq. A new generation came home with wounds -- physical and psychological -- without much of America's notice.

"I fear they do not know us," Adm. Mike Mullen, the newly retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle."

It's a predicament Mike Plummer understands well.

A retired Army colonel who led troops into Vietnam, Plummer, 73, has spent the last quarter century of his life trying to bridge the gap in the Fort Drum area. The work, he says, has paid off.

"It's the Army at war and the rest of the nation in the mall," he says. "But this place, it's the poster child."

Mike Plummer has spent the last quarter century of his life trying to bridge the military-civilian gap in the Fort Drum area. \n
Mike Plummer has spent the last quarter century of his life trying to bridge the military-civilian gap in the Fort Drum area.

Plummer was part of a Fort Drum task force that made sure Fort Drum did not come up like other military bases that are surrounded by strip joints, tattoo parlors and pawn shops. He pushed for strict zoning laws and ways to integrate the base with the communities dotting rolling hills and verdant valleys. Watertown, Black River, Carthage, Evans Mills, Philadelphia, Theresa.

The Army built housing off post, so that soldiers lived among their civilian neighbors. To this day there are no schools or hospitals on Fort Drum.

The sons and daughters of staff sergeants and captains began to mingle with those of truck drivers and dairy farmers. Kids at Philadelphia and Carthage schools used to talk about cows, pigs, boats and skiing. Now they also talk about Afghanistan.

The same kind of bonding happened at Samaritan and other local hospitals where Army families went when they fell sick or had babies.

By the time Afghanistan ignited, Plummer's "Adopt a Platoon" program was in full gear. Not one 10th Mountain unit deployed without community support.

He even started a Military 101 class, designed for people like Cara Peebles, 31, who did not know what E3 or 07 meant or the difference between a battalion and a division.

It's important, Peebles says, to know these things in order to make soldiers feel a part of the community, especially in a time of war, when soldiers began coming home with traumatic brain injuries and post-combat stress.

Because of the way Fort Drum grew intertwined with the communities around it, the soldiers are family -- either you have a loved one serving or you are the friend or neighbor of one.

It became the kind of place that all of America has been during past wars -- keenly aware of battlefield's toll.

But in 2011, this place is an American anomaly.

Rhonda Foote, Bethanne's dance teacher, says all her 280 students, most of them non-military, cry when someone's daddy or mommy is deploying.

Kristi Fuller, a high school drama teacher, learned the importance of understanding military lives.

Thomas Lapp, father of six girls, was on hand for his friend Mark Adams' family as well, every time Adams deployed.

Rich Synek started a food truck for older veterans but found himself face to face with 10th Mountain soldiers on their way to war.

And Roger Howard thought his prosthetics practice would cater to elderly patients. Instead, he fitted young men who had their legs blown off.

They are ordinary New Yorkers, who live largely outside the modern military machine. But a decade of conflict reshaped their lives; made the war stunningly personal.

'In My Shoes'

There's not much white wall left in Kristi Fuller's drama classroom at Indian River High School in Philadelphia. Among the posters of "Wicked," "Rent" and "Spamalot" hang a row of Army combat uniforms.

Kristi Fuller\'s drama class produced a play (with help from Craig Thornton) about the effects of war on students.
Kristi Fuller's drama class produced a play (with help from Craig Thornton) about the effects of war on students.

They were worn by her drama students in "In My Shoes," a docudrama that explored the lives of military kids -- moving from base to base, multiple deployments, combat zone uncertainties.

Fuller, 41, never experienced any of it in her childhood. She had no contact with Army folks until Watertown's Salmon River Mall opened in 1986, and suddenly, she came face to face with uniformed men and women.

She didn't realize the impact of the military on children's lives until she started teaching at Indian River, where two-thirds of the students come from Army homes. When the Afghanistan war started, everything intensified.

A student came into class one day, sat in the back and started crying. Fuller didn't know how to discipline the student for not responding to her. She later discovered it was because dad had deployed that morning.

"That story replays all the time," she says, sitting at her cluttered desk. "I don't say everything is going to be fine. I just let them talk."

She thought it would be powerful for her drama students to depict the distress of military teens in a school play.

She asked non-military kids to interview the sons and daughters of soldiers. How did your dad act when he came home after a year? What worries you most when dad is gone?

It was cathartic. The soldiers' children had never spoken aloud like this about their deepest fears.

"It was a portal into their inner life," says local writer Craig Thornton, who scripted the play based on the interviews.

Cassie Slough, 15, described the time she heard her last name on the evening news. She panicked, thinking something bad had happened to her father.

Other students spoke of other anxieties -- when there's no message from daddy sitting in the inbox or a phone call gets suddenly cut off. Of daddy becoming so distant and quiet after deployment number four.

"I've been here my whole life. I've known nothing but being a civilian in a military world," says Nikki Marshall, 15, the daughter of a teacher and a water technician. "It was weird to see it from their angle for once. I thought everyone had a mom and dad always there."

Her mother taught twin boys in a second grade class whose father died in Afghanistan. Nikki had met the man once. She broke down on the school bus. She thinks it's weird that a civilian teenager in rural New York now automatically reacts this way to war: "Do we know this military person who is in another country fighting for our freedom?"

Personal, not political

Amy Lapp, 17, dressed in an Army uniform for her role in "In My Shoes." Her best friend, Aurora Adams, was one of the military kids who talked about her father, Mark Adams, a chief warrant officer who has deployed several times.

The Lapp family have helped family friends while they cope with repeated deployments.
The Lapp family have helped family friends while they cope with repeated deployments.

Amy saw her friend agonize when a chopper went down in Afghanistan. There was every chance that it might have been her father.

"I cry with her," Amy says. "I let her talk and vent as much as possible. I think: 'What if that were my father?'"

Amy's house sits on an old farm in Theresa, though her father, Thomas Lapp, 44, only raises beef cattle now. He was raised here by Amish parents. He was a pacifist at heart, saw no use in killing another human being.

But when Amy was in the 7th grade, the Lapps met the Adamses at Grace Community Church. Soon after, Mark Adams went off to war.

"That was the first time in our lives we knew someone who was deploying," says Thomas' wife, Kristin, 39.

Tami, Mark's wife, put on a strong face, she says. "But I know her heart was breaking."

The Lapps visited the Adamses often when Mark was away at war. They took Tami flowers. Thomas helped her with household chores that were too big for her to handle.

The two families shared Thanksgiving and Christmas meals together. The Lapps even found themselves driving to Fort Drum before the sun was up when Mark returned home last time.

Somewhere in between, Thomas Lapp began working at the Fort Drum post office where many soldiers rent one of the 1,700 available boxes.

Lapp soon began matching the box numbers with faces. He recalls the first time one of his post office box owners was killed in action.

"They were a young married couple," he says. "He was an officer. 'I'm sorry' is all I could say to her when she came in to pick up the mail."

Lapp says he began to understand that his friend Mark Adams did not have a choice in his actions.

"I had to learn how to separate politics from the soldiers," he says. "The mistake we made in Vietnam is that we turned against the soldiers."

The Lapps felt extreme highs and lows through the Adams family as Mark went to war and back.

They watched him embrace his family every time he returned from combat. "I think it's stupid," Amy says, "that we hold back our trust and love in people."

She was not yet an adult but had understood the fleeting nature of life.

Guns and peanut butter

In a Watertown parking lot every month, Rich Synek, 45, postmaster of Vernon Center, opens up a mobile food pantry called Food for Vets. It was meant for veterans but with America in recession, he sees more and more active duty soldiers and their families stop by to pick through the cardboard boxes stocked with canned and packaged goods.

Milagros Escalaera, an Afghanistan war veteran, is helped by Rich Synek\'s mobile food pantry.
Milagros Escalaera, an Afghanistan war veteran, is helped by Rich Synek's mobile food pantry.

Milagros Escalaera is one of them. She went to Afghanistan in 2004; her husband has deployed four times.

The community help is huge in difficult times, she says, filling her bag with spaghetti, peanut butter, pork and beans. She has two young children to feed.

Behind her, Paula Booth unloads big bags of dry dog food. She donates pet food to help out Synek.

He says it's a lot easier to collect donations in this part of the state. The people here believe in the military.

"You can't be a part-time supporter of the United States," Booth says. "This pantry should not happen. People fighting for our country should not have to stand in line for food."

She began bringing in food for soldiers' pets because she believes dogs and cats can provide support. But when the soldiers can't even feed themselves properly, how are they going to take care of a pet?

Veterans who fought in Korea and Vietnam decades ago wait alongside soldiers who face the Taliban. The line moves steadily along and at the other end, two boys help bag the groceries.

Deven, 9, and Christopher, 7, the sons of Food for Vets volunteers, cannot know war's toll but came out this day to help those who do.

New legs, changed hearts

Roger Howard's prosthetics business occupies half of a brick building on Watertown's Sherman Street. When he opened the practice in 2003, he focused on older patients who lost limbs because of diabetes. All they needed, really, was something to help them get around the house.

Roger Howard helps Matthew Hayes, with his daughter, get fitted for a new prosthetic leg.
Roger Howard helps Matthew Hayes, with his daughter, get fitted for a new prosthetic leg.

He did not know then that there would be healthy young men in Afghanistan stepping on improvised explosive devices, a tragedy so common that the acronym IED became a household term. Some eventually came in through the front door.

With each of his patients, he learned the circumstances of injury. You have to get to know someone, he says, before you can fit a fake body part.

What do they do for fun? How do their kids react to daddy's fake leg?

He can tell you that Matthew Hayes, 22, stepped on a land mine atop the Qurghan Tapa hill in Kunduz province. He can tell you that Hayes' right foot was shredded. That his leg came off soon after the blast. A video of the incident was even sent to Howard's office.

"It's pretty real," Howard says.

Hayes walks into Howard's clinic, with 2-year-old daughter Lillie in his arms. He is here to be measured for a state-of-the art prosthetic leg known as the Biom. It has a robotic foot and allows for much greater movement. Maybe, he jokes, he can be like the Bionic Man.

Howard takes some measurements, asks how Hayes is doing.

Hayes and other soldiers with serious injuries have enabled Howard to stay ahead of the curve and offer his civilian patients a shot at the latest technology, much of it developed with millions of dollars from the Defense Department.

War entered through the front door of the office on Sherman Street and changed Howard's business. In the process, it changed him, as well.

"These men and women are fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters. They're not just the guys in green anymore."

'They have done your bidding'

Not far from Howard's office, next to the famed Crystal Restaurant in Watertown's public square, Rhonda Foote is gearing up for the first day of fall dance classes.

Rhonda Foote teaches dance classes to kids of military, and non-military, families.
Rhonda Foote teaches dance classes to kids of military, and non-military, families.

After college, Foote, a former Miss Lewis County, tried public relations in Washington for a while. But when her mother, a dancer, called her back home, Foote, 48, returned to open a dance school.

She had always thought of Fort Drum as a big expanse of land that was out there. Until 9/11 -- and war.

The front room at Rhonda's Footeworks is filling up fast with kids with bubbling energy and mothers who wait patiently on cushioned benches or the pavement outside.

Some, like Liz Sturdivant and Vicki Vandertang, have husbands who are about to return from year-long tours of Afghanistan; others are civilians inextricably linked to military lives.

Sometimes the entire mood in the waiting room can change when a military mom or dad walks in, Foote says. Everyone knows when something bad has happened. Foote plays counselor, listening to a wife tell her that her husband is not in a safe place or that she is stressed out from taking care of everything by herself.

Foote's own daughter, Madison, 14, had numerous surgeries for scoliosis. Foote can feel the burden on some of her students' mothers.

"Ten years of war has made me more compassionate," she says. "I am more willing to give of myself. I used to look at a 5-year-old and think: 'What can I do to make them a great dancer at 16?' Now I ask: 'What can I give them now?'"

Foote helped Bethanne Vandertang perfect her solo dance dedicated to her father at the downtown summer festival. She was relieved when Gary Vandertang returned home Sunday.

But there are no guarantees on how long Vandertang will stay home. Nobody knows when 10th Mountain soldiers will stop deploying to Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama announced a U.S. drawdown in a speech in June, one which he chose to deliver at Fort Drum. But in speaking before soldiers who he called the "tip of the spear," Obama warned: "There's still some fighting to be done."

It's expected that 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after September 2012, among them 10th Mountain battalions.

But for now, many of the students at Foote's dance school have parents coming home this fall. They won't be dancing to "I Miss You, Daddy" this year. Instead, Foote has a new "Welcome Home" choreography.

At his retirement ceremony last week, Mullen posed this question: Where do you think America's troops learn how to be so brave?

"In your homes, in your schools, in your communities," he said. "Welcome them back to those places not only with bands and bunting or yellow ribbons, but with the solemn recognition that they have done your bidding."

It was a message Mullen hoped would resound across America. But here, outside Rhonda's Footeworks, in all of Watertown and the North Country, there is no need for it to be said.

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