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War etched in city's past, present

As the election approaches, a reporter and a photographer set out for Washington, D.C., via America. We tell stories from seven towns, touching on seven issues from politics and real life.

LEESVILLE, La. — Across the railroad tracks, inside a peeling clapboard shack with a jukebox that lets B.B. King loose once in a while, the men of American Legion Post 510 should be talking new business: Folding chairs for the veterans festival. Volunteers for the dunking booth. A member to staff the tricycle race.

But the lights are low tonight, and somebody just bought another round, and Vietnam vet J.T. Smith has the floor.

"Seven guys were killed on top of that hill," he says. "And we never leave soldiers on the battlefield. It took us five days — four or five days — to get back up there, and by that time they were jet black. The VC had gone through their rucksacks. Their mail, their letters home, all over the ground. Their C-rations — you could tell, they ate them right there, right by the bodies."

He pauses long enough for heads to bow.

"You know what that makes you want to do?"

Some men drink war away. Some bury their ghosts with work or women, or pray them gone from church pews. But in Leesville, La., tied by geography to Fort Polk, war keeps coming back.

• • •

In 1939, the story goes, you could stand at the top of the hill on Third Street, looking south, and not see the ground for all the Army men.

Half a million American soldiers had been rounded up and shipped to the sawmill town of Leesville for the Louisiana Maneuvers, an extensive training exercise, after the Nazis invaded Poland.

Fort Polk sprouted a few miles away, and the city and military installation have been intertwined since. Fort Polk became Leesville's largest industry, with nearly 9,000 soldiers housed on close to 200,000 acres.

When it closed in 1957, mothers went on welfare and grass grew on Leesville's sidewalks. When it reopened in the 1960s, Leesville bloomed again.

It has become a stage on which wars are rehearsed.

During training for Vietnam, local civilians were outfitted with black pajamas and jungle hats and paid a decent wage to hide in bamboo huts up on Peason Ridge. The people of Leesville, playing the part of the Viet Cong.

• • •

Above the bar at American Legion Post 510, the television is tuned to Fox News, which is showing clips of John McCain and Barack Obama preaching to the masses.

Nobody pays attention. The political rhetoric is drowned out by stories of war.

"I lost two men," says Percy Henry. He did two tours in Iraq before retiring here.

All over this community, the names of the dead are etched into granite. The sun rises each morning over a memorial park on Third Street, at the heart of this city of 5,957. Up U.S. 171 at Fort Polk, a marker lists 62 names from the latest war. Among them, the two men who fought with Percy Henry.

Up on the ridge, the Viet Cong have cleared out. The shacks have come down. Now Middle Eastern cities and villages have risen among the Louisiana pines.

The new soldiers battle Leesville residents in Iraqi clothes. It's a short hop from here to Iraq.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Follow along online

Follow our winding route to Washington, D.C., with stories, slideshows and an interactive map at magazine.tampabay.com.

Next stop: Okemah, Okla.

War etched in city's past, present 09/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 10:09am]
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