I'm living now in Santa Fe, a lovely city of some 70,000 people far from the media glare of the Boston-Washington corridor, which was my home for more than 20 years. About a month ago, I flew back to Washington to spend a weekend with an old friend, Larry Smith.
Larry is originally from an Indiana town even smaller than Santa Fe, as he likes to remind me. But Larry's career in Washington has been anything but small-town. His rÃƒ©sumÃƒ© includes a stint as chief of staff to then-senator Gary Hart, a leadership role in rethinking the country's nuclear and military strategies, a position as counselor to two secretaries of Defense, and a key position nurturing Business Executives for National Security, a non-profit designed to bring the tools and resources of business leaders to the hard work of dealing with today's issues of global terror and national security.
When I settled down in Larry's Capitol Hill home, newspapers read and discarded on the coffee table between us, he gently asked, "So, how's the Iraq war look to the good folks out in New Mexico?"
His question made me think about the war's impact not only on Santa Fe, but also on much of small-town America. There had been reports from Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius when tornadoes wiped out an estimated 95% of the small town of Greensburg, Kan, in May. The governor had said Kansas had 40%-50% of its usual National Guard equipment; the rest had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
National Guard underequipped
A USA TODAY review of National Guard units published Friday found that 31 states have 60% or less of their authorized equipment. All kinds of equipment had been sent to Iraq and, as a result, a Government Accountability Office report said, "State National Guards may be hampered in their ability to plan for responding to large-scale domestic events."
If this trend continues, Ohio National Guard spokesman Mark Wayda told USA TODAY, the units might not be able "to answer the call."
There had also been reports in newspapers and on TV locating the hometowns of most of the soldiers injured and killed in combat in Iraq. According to these stories, a disproportionate number of the dead and wounded soldiers were coming from small-town America. An Associated Press analysis of military casualties in Iraq conducted in February bears this out: Nearly half of those killed came from towns of no more than 25,000 people, one in five from towns of fewer than 5,000. There's no denying the toll the war has had, as men and women go off to Iraq, leaving behind people who worry about their safety and pray for their return.
That made me think about what I had seen at the airport in Albuquerque on my way to Washington. The Transportation Security Administration screening line was flush with men in Army camouflage outfits, on their way to report for duty. But what struck me most was neither their numbers nor their uniforms, but their ages. They were either very young - practically children, it seemed, fresh-faced men barely out of their teens - or middle-age or older men with heavily lined faces and conspicuous potbellies, reporting to meet a responsibility I'm sure they thought they had fulfilled long ago.
Then I remembered a Santa Fe New Mexican article that had appeared a short time before. At first, it seemed to have nothing to do with the war in Iraq, but like a loose piece of string, the more you tugged on it, the more it all unraveled.
Local crime on the rise
The story went something like this: Residential burglaries in idyllic Santa Fe were up - way up. To top it off, even members of the City Council had had their own homes burglarized. But what does that have to do with the Iraq war? Pull on the string a little, and you learned from the article that one reason these crimes were growing had to do with the police vacancies - 20 out of a 155-person force.
Why were there so many vacancies? According to the Santa Fe Police Department, the problem was the war in Iraq. The police were trying to recruit the same young men and women as the military - but the Army was paying signing bonuses of up to $40,000 and offering veterans perks when a soldier's tour of duty was up. With a small pool from which to recruit in the first place, the police found themselves losing out consistently to the Army, which accounted for so many vacancies on the force. Not only that, but the Santa Fe police couldn't even get the ammunition it needed. There was a 6- to 12-month wait because first dibs on ammunition went to the Army for use in Iraq.
Of course, Santa Fe is hardly alone in feeling the effect of the war in its police force and its crime rate. According to a Justice Department study, police officers in communities across the country are being called to duty in the Army, leaving their hometowns understaffed. The cost to local law enforcement agencies runs to more than $1 billion per year, according to the report. In Santa Fe, the problem has become so severe that the police department came up with a novel idea - hiring Mexican nationals to serve as police - in effect, outsourcing our protection.
"In the meantime," I told Larry, "local crime goes up, local costs go up, and local police vacancies stay high."
"All of which goes to show that the late, great Tip O'Neill had it almost right," said Larry, paraphrasing the former speaker of the House. "All war is local."
Alan M. Webber is founding editor of the business magazine Fast Company and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
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