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Neighbors go marching back to war 

“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” — Mark Twain

A reporter from National Public Radio named John McChesney came through Little Rock last week, drawn by reports that the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Infantry Brigade would soon return to Iraq.

It’s been 18 months since these 3,000 of our friends and neighbors, many middle-aged, finished an 18-month assignment in Baghdad and Taji. They were advised, if not assured, they wouldn’t be going back for five years.

McChesney wondered why Arkansas seemed to be making a disproportionate contribution to the war.

A rural culture with fewer economic and educational opportunities has the effect of steering a relatively higher percentage of its population to the military. But it might also be that there’s something about the intimacy of our small-state culture that nurtures service.

Check the ranks of both the 39th and the Arkansas National Guard’s 142nd Fires Brigade in Northwest Arkansas, with its few dozen soldiers also headed to Iraq. You’ll find policemen, firemen, security officers, emergency medical technicians and school teachers. They joined thinking they’d get to help their neighbors through hardships such as tornadoes. Most never dreamed they’d police Iraq even once.

Ron Angel’s job at Fort Roots in North Little Rock is training Veterans Administration security officers from around the country. He won’t be going back to Iraq. He’s discharged now, having just turned 60.

Yes, that means he was in Iraq at the age of 58. And he came home to a marriage lost.

His commanding officer was Col. John Edwards, the staff judge advocate and state Democratic Party insider. Edwards became emotional when he mentioned Angel’s marital fate to me in late 2005. I relate it now only because Angel related it himself to the man from NPR on nationwide radio.

It was Angel, Edwards’ chief legal warrant officer, who insisted that the passenger side of their vehicle needed steel reinforcement — “hillbilly armor,” they called it — before they embarked on the three-day caravan from Kuwait to Baghdad in March 2004.

There was an ambush. The next morning Edwards was shown bullet markings on that reinforced section, inches from his head. “Think about it — I was driven into Baghdad at night by an angel,” Edwards said.

Three months later, doctors told Edwards he had to send Angel home. They’d gotten a good look at that 58-year-old spine. The man to whom Edwards owed his life couldn’t keep toting body armor.

Capt. Bo Felder wasn’t as lucky as Edwards, unless you prefer to think his angel was simply on a different assignment.

Felder was a large man whose civilian job was teaching at a special school in Little Rock for juvenile delinquents. Two months into the Iraq deployment, he was standing in the mouth of a bunker when hit by mortar fire.

Before an overflow crowd at Felder’s funeral at St. Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock, the National Guard’s adjutant general also gave in to emotion. It happened when he related overhearing Felder telling his own young son that he was going to Iraq so that the kids there also could be free.

I wrote then that no one could ever say that such a death had been in vain. One could ask only whether the government had used the brave sacrifice responsibly.

Our friends and neighbors did their duty, necessitated by their government’s undertaking a military operation for which it lacked sufficient regular personnel and for which it wouldn’t dare inconvenience the privileged. Now they are told to return. Is it to a situation made better in the 18 months they’ve been gone? It doesn’t seem so. Is it for a reasonable prospect of a good conclusion? That’s debatable, at best.

Mark Twain said that while the country is the body to be protected, the government’s institutions and offices amount to clothing, perhaps worn-out or ill-fitting, sometimes needing changing.

Our friends and neighbors will do their duty, at high risk and high cost. All of us owe it to them to take stock of our country’s attire.

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