By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007
TIPTON, Iowa -- This farming town in Cedar County buried Army Spec. Aaron Sissel during the Iraq war's ninth month. It buried Army Spec. David W. Behrle during the 51st. Along the way, as a peaceable community's heart sank, its attitude toward President Bush and his Iraq strategy turned more personal and more negative.
Sissel and Behrle were popular young sons of Tipton, a community of 3,100 where anonymity is an impossibility. Sissel bagged groceries at the supermarket and often bowled at Cedar Lanes. Behrle served, just two years ago, as Tipton High's senior class president and commencement speaker.
The town, by all accounts, once gave Bush the benefit of the doubt for a war he said would make America safer and a mission he said was accomplished four years before Behrle died. But funeral by funeral, faith in the president and his project to remake Iraq is ebbing away.
Deep into a battle with no visible end, many Republican and Democratic voters here say the cause is no longer clear, the war no longer seems winnable and the costs are too high. After mourning Behrle, 20, and Sissel, 22, Tipton lost its heart for the fight and the president who is vowing to press on.
"It's hitting all around us," said Jim Allen, a salesman and former Bush voter at Fields Mens Wear on the town square. "Once we got there, I thought, 'Let's get it taken care of.' Now it's dragged on and on. It's just every day, you hear of more casualties."
In the first six months of the year, 125 troops from 10 Midwestern states died in Iraq, the bloodiest stretch of the war so far. Over the past year, 239 from those states have died, compared with 129 from July 2003 to June 2004.
While opposition to the war has been stronger and more visible on the East and West coasts, small towns in the heartland and the South have provided the Bush administration with some of its most steadfast backers. But that support has cracked amid the echoes of graveside bagpipes and 21-gun salutes, which have been heard with greater frequency in recent months in small Midwestern communities.
Two prominent Republican senators who broke with the president this month come from the nation's midsection. Sens. George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) said Bush needs to find a new direction in Iraq and a way to start bringing the troops home. A third defector, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), said he began to reassess his position after conversations with the grieving families of dead soldiers.
Rep. Bruce Braley, a freshman Iowa Democrat who favors a firm timetable for Iraq, heard the pain when he met with the families of two fallen soldiers, Pfc. Katie M. Soenksen and Cpl. Stephen D. Shannon, on Memorial Day. He said people shouted words of support -- "Good job!" and "Keep the pressure on!" -- as he marched in Fourth of July parades.
It is "the intensity and passion" of the desire for an end to the war that strike Braley as new.
"There's more unity in the opposition now," said Braley, whose district adjoins Tipton. "It was always easier to find optimists about the chances of success in Iraq two years ago. You don't now find people talking that way, even the most ardent supporters of the president's policy."
Retired electrician Bob Peck voted twice for Bush. The first time, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush in Cedar County by two votes, 4,033 to 4,031. Peck would not vote for him again, even if he could.
"The war and the way he's handled it. We've lost too many boys," said Peck, 71, a former Marine, as he sipped a drink at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2537. "We've been there long enough, and it's not doing anything. It doesn't look like it will."
Woody Marshall, a Vietnam War-era Navy veteran, described his own evolution as he trained his gaze on an elegantly stitched tapestry of a smiling Aaron Sissel in a VFW corridor. At first, he was "thrilled" that U.S.-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical government.
"I've never heard anybody now say the war is okay. Maybe around two years ago," said Marshall, who said Sissel was very close to a pair of his in-laws, who owned the bowling alley. "It's time to get the hell out. It's a holy war, and you're not going to win it, no matter what you do."
The in-laws are Ernie and Kay Jennings. Sissel spent a lot of time at Cedar Lanes, becoming a smooth bowler and loyal worker under Ernie Jennings's tutelage. He sometimes stayed past midnight, talking about life as a teenager whose parents had split up. He joined the National Guard while in high school.
Then came Iraq.
"When he left," Jennings said, "we felt that all of them were coming back, and they all did, but one of them was horizontal. That was one of the roughest times in my life. He was like an adopted son."
Jennings is an energetic talker, but there are moments when he is discussing Sissel that his voice breaks and he cannot continue.
"I have mixed feelings about the war," Jennings said. "I'm a Republican. I agree with most things President Bush has done. I just don't know if we know what to do over there. I believe we have to come up with an exit strategy."
When word reached Tipton in May that Behrle was dead, Allen, the salesman, remembers thinking, "Out of the whole state of Iowa, why us?" He considers the war every time Behrle's father, a good customer, comes into the store. Others mentioned the same thing, in a town where neighbors constantly cross paths.
Regular business at City Hall stopped for a week before Behrle's body came home, as staff members made sure routes were cleared, streets were swept and flags reached the right places. "In a town of 3,000, you wouldn't expect two of them to be killed," Mayor Don Young said.
The town's weekly newspaper, the Tipton Conservative, devoted its entire front page to the rain-swept, flag-bearing crowds that greeted the return of Behrle's body. Photos of Behrle, from a childhood Halloween to a tour in Iraq, filled an inside page.
Included in the brief text was a comment from his family: "He is 'The Man,' and our hero."
Dixie Pelzer remembers there were three of them, soldiers in uniform who came to the door at about a quarter to 10 one night in late May. She is Behrle's mother, and she knew it was real -- David had been killed by a roadside bomb. "Then it all just started," said Pelzer, who works with student organizations at the University of Iowa.
The six weeks since have been a fog, she said, an initiation into a parallel world occupied by the families of the 3,611 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq. The support of friends and strangers has been magnificent, but her son is still gone, buried on an Iowa hilltop where she likes to think he would have been happy.
Behrle, she said, did not join the military in high school to embrace a grand cause. He enlisted at age 18 because he liked the idea. He told his mother he would spend three years in uniform, then go to college.
"It's not like he was a patriot, or political. It was just something he wanted to do," Pelzer said quietly, speaking with a reporter for the first time. "He said, 'It's okay. I'll be fine, Mom.' "
She wondered if he would be fine. It was 2005. She figured Iraq would be calmer by the time his unit deployed.
Like so many Tipton residents who saw the war delivered like an unwelcome package when the cortege passed, Pelzer realized that it took her son's death for her to focus on the war.
"I don't know that you can win," she said of the chances of victory in Iraq. "But if you can't accomplish what you need to accomplish, get them out of there. There's been enough. One is too many."