Saturday, August 27, 2011

Small towns, military deaths and sentimentality

There's a growing awareness that a disproportionate number of those serving in our armed services hail from nonmetropolitan places. (This fact even made it into the report of the White House Rural Council, released last week--though the extent of rural over-representation is debated. Read more here). So I cannot say I was really surprised by this NPR report last week about a native son of Blanding, Utah, who was among the Navy Seals killed when the Taliban shot down a U.S. Chinook helicopter earlier this month in Afghanistan.

Dan Bammes, who reported the story, told a poignant tale of 32-year-old Petty Officer Jason Workman, who grew up in Blanding, population 3,178, and who had recently visited his home town, and indicated his desire and intention to return there to raise his family. Workman's high school football coach was quoted, sharing anecdotes to illustrate what a fine young man and teammate Workman had been, even referring to him as virtually a son. The San Juan County Sheriff indicated that Workman had expressed a desire to work in law enforcement once he left the military and moved back to Blanding. Bammes's story was a powerful one that certainly brought tears to my eyes. Link
Yet the story also left me wondering: why a story about Jason Workman of Blanding, Utah and not one about any of the other soldiers lost, no doubt also fine young men who were greatly appreciated by their communities, even if those communities lay within metropolitan areas and did not constitute the entirety of smallish home towns. Bammes did note--by way of context that arguably justifies the focus on Blanding, that Workman is the third of Blanding's native sons to die at war since 2004 and that its Army National Guard unit has seen both Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, I tend to see this piece as one of those rolled out to perpetuate a rural idea, even myth, to summon up nostalgia for the rural. Maybe it also intended to evoke a complicated cocktail of pity and envy for denizens of rural America. Indeed, Bammes closed his story with these lines:
As painful as the sacrifices have been, [Blanding] Mayor Toni Turk says love of country and service are ideals kids grow up with in his town.

Mayor TONI TURK: They are taught patriotism. They are well-grounded in terms of traditional American patriotic experiences. And this community loves America. They're not afraid to serve.

I admit that I'm skeptical of the "rural places are more patriotic" line, especially when recent literature suggests that lack of other opportunity more than anything else that draws rural youth into military service. Read an earlier blog touching on this debate here.

Read more about Blanding and San Juan County, Utah here and here.

1 comment:

Courtney Taylor said...

This story is almost trying to say, in addition to depicting rural America as more patriotic, that rural veterans killed at war are more missed than those from metropolitan areas. Perhaps the story assumes that the lack of anonymity typical of small, rural towns (or so the stereotype tells us) necessarily leads to a greater loss for the community when someone dies?