Rural communities are experiencing a disproportionate amount of U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new study by the Carsey Institute, a think tank at the University of New Hampshire.
"The mortality rate for soldiers from rural America is about 60 percent higher than the mortality rate for soldiers from metropolitan areas," the Institute’s William O’Hare told OneWorld.
According to the study, 825 of the first 3,095 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan or 27 percent came from rural America, even though rural areas account for only 19 percent of the U.S. population.
Soldiers from rural Vermont have the highest death rate in the nation, followed by Delaware, South Dakota, and Arizona.
Dee Davis, president of the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, told OneWorld that U.S. military efforts overseas are increasingly hitting home in America’s heartland.
"This year we did polling around the election in contested congressional races," he said, "and what we found was that 75 percent of rural voters knew somebody who had been to Iraq or Afghanistan."
"In small towns and rural communities, the war is not an abstraction," he added. "You have a visceral idea of what this war means. So many police and firefighters are also members of the National Guard."
Davis said patriotism is one factor leading to increased military service in rural America, but added that the dearth of nonmilitary job opportunities is also important.
The Carsey Institute’s O’Hare, who helped conduct the study, agrees.
"The decline in manufacturing has hit rural American harder than urban America," he said. "A lot of people don’t know that a higher percentage of the rural workforce is in manufacturing than the urban workforce. So a lot of good manufacturing jobs have left over the last five or six years, and that means there are fewer jobs for young people in rural America.
"In the context of fewer job opportunities, the military has appeared as a more attractive option."
The results of the study hardly surprise Arizona native Alden Rossbrook. The founder of an environmental group supporting the 11,000-acre San Tan Mountain Regional Park southeast of Phoenix has been spending much of his time lately on a memorial named after a friend who died in Iraq.
Robert "Nathan" Martens, a Navy corpsman, died Sept. 6, 2005, when the Humvee he was riding in rolled. He had been in Iraq for 10 days. He was 20 years old.
"Nathan Martens was a corpsman who served with the 6th Marine Division in Iraq. He lived within two miles of the park and he did a lot of horseback riding, trail-riding, and hiking before he went into the military," Rossbrook told OneWorld.
Hundreds of area veterans joined friends and family for the memorial’s unveiling over Veterans Day weekend. Eighty-five small aluminum plaques with the names of Arizona’s fallen soldiers sit below a 70-foot flagpole.
On Monday, the Pentagon announced the name of the 86th Arizona soldier killed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001. The military said 19-year-old Army Pvt. Reece D. Moreno, 19, of Prescott, Arizona, died Friday of injuries suffered in a non-combat related incident in Balad, Iraq.
Rossbrook said Moreno’s name will be added to the memorial.
"It’s very sad but necessary," Rossbrook said. "We have room for about 20 more names. We hope we won’t have to use that space, but we will if we need to. We feel that it’s our duty."