Small Kentucky town reels from pain of two wars

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2011 

First of two parts

LONDON, Ky. -- On Veterans Day 2011, Timothy Jackson, a former sailor in the U.S. Navy and the son of a man who was the same, visited a small, unfinished gravesite on a hilltop alongside a winding road. It belonged to Timothy Matthew Jackson, who went by Matt and had himself been a Marine.

And in three generations of Jackson men to serve, Matt was the first to die in combat. He was 22.

It's been a wrenching year for the Jackson family. And for the communities in and around London, it's been a wrenching decade. A decade ago in October, America went to war -- first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. At 10 years, the war on terror is almost as long as World War I, World War II and the Korea War combined.

Now, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are nearing their end, as President Barack Obama has plans to bring U.S. troops back from Iraq by the end of this month and reduce forces in Afghanistan -- still a hot zone -- by the middle of 2012.

But for the soldiers of Kentucky and their families, the war is far from over.

To understand the impact of these wars on the American fabric, McClatchy Newspapers reviewed reams of reports and records from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It settled on London -- a typical small American town that, when it comes to matters of war, is anything but typical.

In the past decade, nearly 200 men and women from these parts have left the service and are now collecting disability payments for the injuries they sustained during military service. Three soldiers from London were killed outright, a higher number than most small towns and many larger ones.

And a McClatchy assessment finds that the area has one of the highest rates in the country of veterans collecting disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder -- one the costliest and most prevalent ailments to emerge from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

These grim benchmarks set London apart from many American communities.

To gauge just what these wars have done in this part of Kentucky, McClatchy visited the area and talked to many who live here: veterans, preachers, shopkeepers, parents and wives.

War and the consequences of war run deep here. At one church, five members are overseas now. At the veterans' halls, the talk by former Iraq and Afghanistan war vets is just beginning. American flags fly up and down Main Street. Patriotism is at the surface.

Matt Jackson was from Corbin, just down the road from London, and when he died his body was flown into London's tiny airport for his final journey home. His casket was ushered along roads lined with the grateful families of London, Corbin, Keavy and the area's other small towns. Matt's body rests today in the unfinished grave in a private cemetery next to the unincorporated community of Keavy.

"I meet all these people who don't have a clue how the war affects all of us," Timothy Jackson said on that Veterans Day visit; he tended to the collection of decorations and trinkets that had been laid on his boy's grave alongside flowers, the U.S. flag and the Marine Corps flag.

"I can tell you that until my son got killed I didn't have a clue how it affects us," he said. "Even when I was in the service, I didn't have a clue."

The war on terror has been different than previous wars, with an all-volunteer force cycling through deployment after deployment. Certain families and certain regions have been impacted more. The dynamic is affected by income and culture, and there are large swaths of the American public that don't directly know soldiers serving overseas.

The people in London do.

A JOB TO FINISH

Zola Hamlin lives outside of town in a small home near the creek where her grandson once played. Christopher Hamlin joined the Junior ROTC at North Laurel High School before graduating in 2001, and then served multiple Army tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He'd come home about once a year, staying with his grandmother, seeing friends, visiting the local schools.

He never hesitated to return to duty, although he told his grandmother, "You couldn't imagine how bad it was."

The last time Hamlin saw his grandmother was in 2006, several months before his death. They were at an amusement park in Tennessee. She still has a photo from that day, with the big, rugged soldier and his diminutive grandmother, both smiling, high above the ground in a chair lift. During that visit, Zola Hamlin tried to persuade Chris not to re-enlist -- he had done his service, it was time to come home.

"Big tears were rolling down his cheeks," Zola Hamlin said. "But he said he had to go back, he had a job to finish."

He was killed by a roadside bomb in May 2007, his body then flown into the London airport, outside of which respectful residents lined the roadways. Today, Zola Hamlin occasionally pulls out old cassette tapes that contain some of the recorded calls Chris made from Iraq. She wears his dog tags and is still leery of calls in the early morning hours, which is when she got the call about Chris.

While Hamlin was regular Army, the service for many London-area men and women is as a member of the Kentucky National Guard. London's unit is now on its second tour of duty in the war zone. Its return date is uncertain.

"We don't have a clue yet," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Barton, a leader in the Guard unit.

For Sarah Doggette, that has meant raising her son alone.

The 29-year-old lives in Park City, two hours west of London, but husband David is part of the London Guard unit. He's been in the military for a decade since starting in the ROTC in college. He's been to Iraq twice, the first time before his wife and child came along.

Wilson, now 4 years old, doesn't really understand what's going on. He's seen David with his National Guard unit, and so in his young mind, the person he sees on Skype is 128 miles away at the London Armory -- not 6,500 miles away in Iraq.

"For the most part, he's really too young to understand," Sarah Doggette said.

The London unit now has 124 members -- not all of them are in Iraq now -- and ranges in age from 17 to 56. Barton, the staff sergeant who remains stationed in London, estimates more than half have families. The unit's role now is helping in the cleanup and shutdown process, including sweeping roads for improvised explosive devices, the IEDs that have killed and maimed so many U.S. soldiers.

LIVING WITH WOUNDS

It's not only the current soldiers and their families now dealing with the war -- it's also those who have already been overseas and come back with injuries that will last a lifetime.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' disability compensation database, released under a Freedom of Information Act request, includes 3.2 million records of every veteran receiving disability compensation. McClatchy's analysis of that data shows that the former soldiers who live in the hills and hollows around London already carry a heavy burden of war.

Among veterans who left service from 2003 on -- a rough approximation of the Iraq and Afghanistan generation -- a total of 175 soldiers in the ZIP codes in and around London are on the VA's disability roles. Combined, they have documented 917 disabilities -- some mild, some severe, some mental, some physical.

Topping the list are 71 soldiers with hearing problems. Second are 56 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. A total of 49 soldiers have limited leg motion, while 35 have ankle problems. Such claims result in monthly checks that range from $127 to $2,769.

According to McClatchy's analysis of the VA data, 255 veterans around London have a top disability rating of 100; of those, 22 are veterans who left active duty in or after 2003. While those from the Vietnam generation with the highest rating dwarf those from the recent wars, that's certain to change as the Iraq generation ages and comes in for help.

On a sunny Thursday last month, down a road at the edge of town and past the Dog Patch Trading Post, dozens of veterans with PTSD pack into a maroon corrugated metal building, Chapter 66 of the Disabled American Veterans.

Inside, Cynthia Dunn does what she's done for 16 years: help veterans grapple with the mental disorder that often emerges from war and can last a lifetime. In previous wars it was present but sometimes dismissed -- in World Wars I and II they called it "shell shock" -- but in the past two decades it has become recognized and treated widely.

Dunn, a psychologist, works for the VA medical center 90 minutes away in Lexington and comes each week for a session mostly with Vietnam vets in their 60s.

What she doesn't have, at least yet, are many Iraq and Afghanistan vets; a tenth of her 50 participants are younger vets, often pushed there by uncles and fathers. "That's the first line of intervention," she said.

Clinically, the young vets are likely going through "detachment and estrangement," said the VA's Dunn. Even if the community is welcoming, a veteran might retreat and refuse help.

The Vietnam and Iraq generations are alike in some ways, different in others. The younger vets have seen multiple tours of duty, compared with the typical one tour of the draft-era Vietnam War. But they've also come back to a far more welcoming social climate, and the VA and the Department of Defense are more aggressive in screening departing soldiers for mental health problems.

When Dunn started her sessions in the mid-1990s, she was still catching the second and third waves of Vietnam veterans. The first wave was right after the war, the second in a veteran's mid-life, the third at or near retirement. The Iraq and Afghanistan vets, she said, are "in the middle of the first wave."

Not all returning soldiers struggle. Buddy Butler, who served in the early parts of the war, came home to welcoming parades, open arms and an efficient demobilization process.

"I will say this for Laurel County: I don't think I've ever been in a more patriotic community," Butler said.

Although Butler wasn't originally from the county, he wanted to do something for it. And so the veteran of the Iraq war decided to thank the veterans who never received the welcome home he did. Last fall, he helped organize a "Welcome Home Parade" for Vietnam-era veterans. In October 2010, London's streets were filled with townspeople and officials; it drew at least 800 veterans from throughout the region.

That same month, the streets would be lined for another welcoming.

A SON'S DEATH

Matt Jackson, Timothy Jackson's son, ended up in the Marines when a friend persuaded him to join on the buddy system -- even though the two buddies didn't actually end up in the same unit. Like Chris Hamlin, he went directly from high school ROTC to the military, graduating in 2007 and landing in Iraq by 2008.

After Iraq, he set out for Afghanistan in August 2010. But just before his departure, Matt was talking like he never had before. "Dad, I won't be coming back," he said.

Said Timothy Jackson: "He didn't say it like he was scared. His voice wasn't trembling." He was so nonchalant about it that Jackson put it out of his mind.

About six weeks later, Jackson received a call at 9 a.m.

The Marines were on the phone. All they would say is that they were at the Corbin home of his ex-wife -- Matt's mother -- and that she had requested he get there as soon as possible.

Jackson lives 30 miles south of Corbin, and he jumped in his old Dodge Spirit, blasting up Interstate 75 at 125 mph. He called his ex-wife, he called his sister, he called his mother. Everything was going through his mind. "Is my son hurt? Or is my son dead?" he asked.

Only when he picked up his mother -- Matt's grandmother -- from her job did Jackson know for certain what had happened: Matt was dead. He had been walking down a road in Helmand province in a group of five soldiers, two ahead, two behind. An IED went off; Matt was the only one killed.

The next days were a daze, the following year a blur.

The community outpouring was tremendous. "People lined both sides of the street," said Mary Jackson, 70, who wears a bracelet that commemorates Matt, one of three grandchildren who served in the military.

"They were waving flags, they had their hands on their hearts. Some were even crying," she said. "I had never seen such an outpouring for somebody those people didn't know and have never even heard of."

"The community you think you know, you don't," Timothy Jackson said.

But then came the agony. Never a big drinker before, Jackson said, "I've drank more in the last year than I probably have my whole life."

"I just deal with it the best I can. I'm sure it's not the right way," he added. "For the first four months, I lived at the bottom of a bottle." He's battled depression, as well as accompanying suicidal thoughts. His family is worried about him, and he admits he's worried as well.

"When my dad died, I thought I lost everything," he said of his father's death in 2009. "When my son died, there was no comparison. The pain was totally different, and a whole lot deeper."

His visits to Matt's gravesite are relatively easy. Reliving memories is harder.

"If you've not lost anybody, or if you're not in a military family, the war don't mean anything other than what you see on TV, or in the newspapers or radio," he said. "There's a hole in my heart and soul that will never ever be healed. It's really a pain that you can't explain."


Monday: Cost of Iraq, Afghan wars on pace to exceed Vietnam.

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