In Hopkinsville, soldier pay and healthcare at the forefront

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by Dante Chinni 

HOPKINSVILLE, KY. - In the center of the city here, one block northwest of Main Street, sits a small park where three flags flap in the breeze. One is the Stars and Stripes. One is the Kentucky state flag. The third honors the 101st Airborne, the "Screaming Eagles" of nearby Fort Campbell. That third flag carries great significance here.

Fort Campbell and its 105,000 acres are not actually within the boundaries of Hopkinsville, but considering the impact that the base has here it might as well be. About two-thirds of the 30,000 Army and Air Force soldiers based here live in communities like this one around the region.

City officials here estimate that 30 percent of Hopkinsville's population is either active-duty military or veterans. Add in family and relatives and the number of those with a direct tie to the military probably climbs to more than 50 percent.

That means the Iraq war weighs on the minds of people here, but not in the way it does in other places. The war is not an abstract discussion in Hopkinsville and surrounding Christian County. It is deeply felt.

"Any discussion about the war is a very personal one," says Carter Hendricks, senior vice president of community and military affairs at the Hopkinsville Chamber of Commerce. "People spend a lot more time thinking about our friends and neighbors who are the soldiers at Fort Campbell."

Fort Campbell has suffered one of the highest casualty counts in Iraq. The base has lost more than 240 soldiers since 2003. Many soldiers there are on their fourth combat tour since the start of the war. Deployment orders mean that sometimes leases have to be broken. Families have to figure out how to make do minus one parent.

Lydia Bravard, who works as a hostess at Timmons, a downtown restaurant, says two women who are bartenders there recently found out their soldier boyfriends were being sent overseas. "The first week or so they really didn't talk much, and they would cry a lot," she says. "They're thinking they maybe could move in together."

War opposition not accepted
Because military issues are uppermost, people here will want to know the 2008 presidential candidates' stances on soldier pay, healthcare, and family aid. "The main issue for the soldiers is that when they're deployed the families are taken care of," says Bobby Freeman, a retired colonel from the base. "Any candidates who don't support the military aren't going to get a single vote out of Christian County."

Second, as much as the war is the subtext of a lot that goes on here, people tend not to discuss war in policy terms, but talk instead about personal accounts from friends and neighbors who are serving.

The Rev. Ron Buck, pastor of Hopkinsville's First Christian Church, says his personal feeling about the war - he opposes it, but supports the troops - is not an accepted view in the city, which the locals call Hoptown.

Mr. Buck, a member of the group Historians Against the War, who moved to the community four years ago, was warned that his opinions were fine as long as he didn't try to paint them as his church's views. Within a few weeks though, he says, people told him it was probably not a good idea to talk about opposing the war.

"There is an extreme sense of patriotism in this town," says Taylor Hayes, publisher of the Kentucky New Era, the hometown daily newspaper. "You won't normally hear open disagreements about the war. People who disagree tend to keep it to themselves."

Voters and values issues
While military issues guide much of how this community votes, at least in national elections, "values" play a large role in national races here as well, residents say. Some mention concerns about abortion and gay marriage. Faith-based programs have strong support here.

"This is a community where we like to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and when we do, we like to include the words 'under God,' " Mr. Freeman says, summing up the city's values.

In party registration Hopkinsville is Democratic by a margin of 2 to 1, says Mayor Dan Kemp, himself a Democrat. But sentiments like Freeman's are the reason this community and others like it are reliable Republican ground in national elections and will almost certainly be again in 2008. President Bush carried 63 percent of the vote here in 2004. Rep. Edward Whitfield (R) won the congressional seat in 1994, and was the first Republican to win here since the Civil War. He was reelected in 2006 with 60 percent of the vote.

However, some say the values vote has lost momentum in the past few years, in part because the war has become a bigger issue and in part because people here have tired of the acrimony that values discussions can generate.

Fort Campbell was one place where the Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas lined up followers to jeer during soldiers' funerals in 2006. Mr. Phelps's group says such deaths are divine punishment from God for America's toleration of homosexuality.

"A lot of people feel the morality issue has had too much pushing," says Mr. Hayes.

Some values issues don't play much of a role in everyday life. For instance, no abortion clinics are found in the Hopkinsville area.

The most surprising thing about Hopkinsville may be not be the importance voters place on military and values issues but that people here do not vote their pocketbook - or at least the way many might think residents would vote.

Day-to-day economic woes
Like many military bastions, Hopkinsville is not well off. The average household income is about $34,000, below the national county average. Many here worry about rising gasoline prices.

"There are a lot of people here that are barely making it," says Jennifer Brown, deputy editor of the Kentucky New Era. "There are many people here who aren't making it."

The area's diverse economy - ranging from agriculture to manufacturing - has been in a slump in the past few years. (Ebonite, the bowling-ballmaker, is based here.) In 2007, Flynn Enterprises, a denim manufacturer, shuttered its plant in Hopkinsville and headed for Mexico, taking along 1,200 jobs.

While people say the downtown area has improved, it is still struggling. Many storefronts are boarded up. Ferrell's, the seven-seat burger joint that has been open since 1929, does brisk business, but other restaurants are not busy at all. The downtown may be at a turning point of thriving or declining, Ms. Brown says.

For this community, poor public education is a problem, too, as Hopkinsville schools sit 11th from the bottom in state standardized test scores. The community convened an education summit in January to address the issue.

In day-to-day life in Hopkinsville, a racial divide means that blacks and whites don't socialize much, and that African-Americans, who are among the poorest residents here, don't hold many positions of power and generally don't vote.

"There are a lot of people below the poverty threshold that struggle all the time," says Wendell Lynch, city executive at the local BB&T bank and chairman of the Hopkinsville Chamber of Commerce. "They are disenfranchised. They think the system is the system, and things don't change."

Mr. Lynch, an African-American, says the history and traditions established among the poor in Hopkinsville mean that they have not been looking to politicians for help. "You complain within your circle of friends and they complain back and it doesn't go anywhere."

Change in this mind-set will come only when people begin to see that they can change their community themselves, he says, but national politics still seems a million miles away.

Buck says he talks to many people - black and white - who don't believe the federal government can fix the city's problems. "They know unemployment goes up and down. They understand a lot of jobs don't pay very much. They just don't see those things as being affected by the federal government," he says.