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Across America, War Means Jobs

Defense Spending Pumps New Life Into Small or Dying Towns

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page A01

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- Along a quiet strip of gray corrugated metal buildings, across the street from a La-Z-Boy distribution center, Gary Allen and his ever-expanding crew are running one of the most urgent operations of the Iraq war.

Around the clock, seven days a week, O'Gara Hess & Eisenhardt churns out heavily armored Humvees, designed for the guerrilla combat and roadside bombs bedeviling U.S. troops. Last August, a back-lot warehouse held excess inventory. Now, after a $1.5 million investment, 30 new workers on two shifts produce 500 sets of three-inch-thick bulletproof glass a week. As many as 10,000 sets are on back order.

George Allen, from left, Steve Steinbeck and Karen Smallwood prepare a Humvee to be painted at the O'Gara Hess & Eisenhardt plant in Fairfield, Ohio. The plant turned out 600 vehicles in all of 2002 but has already made 890 this year. (Mary Annette Pember For The Washington Post)

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In November, the company snapped up a 40,000-square-foot building down the road, moved its entire commercial armoring operation there and in three days, with an additional $1.5 million, it doubled the Humvee operation.

In six months, employment has more than tripled, to over 600, and 250 more people in this part of southwestern Ohio work as direct suppliers. Production manager Ronnie Carson figured he interviews 15 job applicants every day and hires 10 to 12 of them. Just yesterday, the company's parent corporation, Armor Holdings Inc., announced it received an additional $16.6 million from the Army to ramp up production yet again. The clocks setting the pace on the assembly line were reset, from one vehicle every hour and a half to one every hour and 15 minutes.

"For us, the economy is great," said Allen, senior vice president and general manager of Armor Holdings Inc.'s Mobile Security Division. "It's a sad situation, but . . . " His voice trailed off, then he added, "I don't think anyone here is thinking about it that way."

In this corner of a critical presidential-election battleground state, the economy is surging with the urgency of a boom. But it wasn't President Bush's tax cuts, Federal Reserve interest rate policies or even a general economic turnaround that did the trick. It was war.

The frenetic activity is repeated all over the country. New kilns in California bake ceramic body-armor plates. Apparel plants in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida and Puerto Rico struggle to keep up with uniform orders. Once-idle textile mills in South Carolina spin rugged camouflage fabric. Army depots operate 24/7 to repair and rebuild the wreckage of war in time to ship it back with the next troop deployment.

In the first three months of this year, defense work accounted for nearly 16 percent of the nation's economic growth, according to the Commerce Department. Military spending leaped 15.1 percent to an annualized rate of $537.4 billion, up from $463.3 billion in the comparable period of 2003, when Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq over.

"That's pretty good, considering it's only 3 to 4 percent of the economy," said Joseph Liro, an economist at the New Jersey-based research firm Stone & McCarthy. "For one quarter, that's a pretty big number."

It is impossible to know how many of the 708,000 jobs created in the past three months are defense-related, since the Labor Department does not track defense contractor employment. But anecdotal evidence suggests the contribution is significant.

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