Small Wyoming Town Wears Patriotism on Its Sleeve

Sharon Earhart walks along Bent Street, past the row of flags that have flown since Sept. 11, 2001, handing out star-spangled signs for display in downtown storefronts.

Even the few business owners who privately confess their opposition to the war in Iraq have agreed to post the sign: "Powell Valley Supports Our Troops."

"People in town are happy to live here and in a free country, and they feel indebted to our troops," says Earhart, leader of the Chamber of Commerce. "Anyone who comes to Powell will know we're patriotic."

But in this conservative farming community of 5,400 people — where this past week one family buried a son killed in the war in Iraq, Marine 1st Lt. Shane Childers — patriotism runs far deeper than hanging a flag on the front porch or wearing a yellow ribbon.

It is saying a prayer at St. Barbara's church for Kristy Hetzel and her Army National Guard unit as they head to the war.

It is writing letters and sending care packages to loved ones in Iraq.

And it is bringing military parents like Anna Paris and Leslie Kallem together in a support group to share their fears about having a son or daughter in harm's way, a world away from the dry buttes and alfalfa fields of home.

"All we can do is show support for our kids and our troops," says Kallem, a college snack bar worker who used to talk with her son, Eric Short, every day, but now must wait for letters from the 22-year-old Marine. "We are at a loss, and it's terrifying."

Patriotism in Powell is instinctive, residents say, a product of a small-town upbringing in which love of God and country is instilled early. Students at South Side Grade School say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning and flags flap from pickup trucks bearing "Bush-Cheney 2000" bumper stickers.

"We don't know any other way," Eric Buchan, 55, says between drags on his cigarette at the Classic Lanes bowling alley.

Not everyone here supports the war, but opponents seem to be a very quiet minority.

There are no peace signs; there have been no demonstrations. And veterans, a big part of this northern Wyoming town's largely older population, say they don't expect to see any.

Martha Wutzke painted the names of "Powell's Bravest" on the window of her Time Out lounge, a sports bar where these days the TV is tuned to cable news instead of basketball so she can listen for familiar names.

"Everyone seems to knows someone over there," she says.

The Army and Navy uniforms of Janet Blevins' relatives fill the front window of Powell Office Supply.

"Patriotism is something deep in our hearts," Blevins said.

Vickie and Louis Hetzel, who served with the Marines during Vietnam, say they've always talked with their children about the importance of freedom, fighting for what's right and helping others in need. Their 20-year-old daughter, Kristy, is preparing for deployment to the Persian Gulf region with her Army National Guard unit.

"Obviously nobody wants war. But sometimes you have to fight for your rights and defend the rights of your neighbors," Vickie Hetzel says from the kitchen of the family's farmhouse.

Kristy's name is atop the growing "Military Honor Roll" in the foyer of St. Barbara's Roman Catholic Church.

At South Side Grade School, secretary Caroline Kost has led a letter-writing campaign for former students now in the military. She knows of at least four, who can expect batches of notes or drawings from the school's 214 students.

Anna Paris, whose Marine son left for Kuwait in February, helped start the support group for people with loved ones overseas. Nancy Gilmore also is part of the effort.

"Some parts of patriotism are pretty painful," says Gilmore, a secretary whose 23-year-old son, Clayton Morris, is in the Air Force and expects to be sent to the war. "You're always waiting for letters and there's the possibility you will see them on TV."