By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 12:17 AM
ELKHART, IND. - The Afghan war began more than half a lifetime ago for the teenagers in Adam Meyers's world history class. Some of his students think the terrorist attack that prompted the war was an airplane accident. To them, al-Qaeda remains a mystery, the Taliban an enigma.
The American battle for Afghanistan? "It doesn't register," Meyers said.
"We should just end it. Bring the troops home," said Ashley Ivory, 17, who thinks the war is doing nothing to stop terrorists. "They're just sneaking in here while we're over there. We don't have enough eyes."
The views of the students and the community around them echo a growing national skepticism about U.S. involvement in a distant war that will soon enter its 10th year and register its 1,270th U.S. casualty. A majority of Americans say the war has not been worth its cost, an opinion voiced frequently in Elkhart, a hard-luck town that sees the conflict through the lens of loss and economic hardship.
Meyers and his students have a particular reason to reflect. Army Spec. Justin B. Shoecraft, 28, who attended Elkhart Memorial High School with Meyers, was killed late last month by a roadside bomb, barely a month after he reached Afghanistan. When his mother in Elkhart heard the news, she screamed, then fainted.
President Obama, who has visited Elkhart twice as a candidate and twice as president to talk about economic troubles, has sharply increased U.S. deployments to Afghanistan in hopes of establishing a measure of stability before beginning a 2011 withdrawal. Yet public doubts seem to have risen with the death toll, rippling through the small cities and towns that send many of America's soldiers to war.
As combat deaths reached new monthly highs this year, 69 of the 301 U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan came from a dozen Midwestern states. Among the home towns of the fallen in the past month are Creve Coeur, Ill.; Mulvane, Kan.; Papillion, Neb.; Prairie du Sac, Wis.; White, S.D. And, on the morning of Aug. 24, Elkhart, Ind.
Disapproval of the war was once rare. When President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, four weeks after the Twin Towers fell, American support for the overthrow of the Taliban was strong. Ninety-one percent of Americans supported the war at the end of its second month, 79 percent of them "strongly," according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
In March 2009, the poll found that 64 percent of Americans agreed with Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. That same month, 56 percent of those polled said that the war there was, on balance, worth its costs. This July, however, the number seeing the war as worth it dropped to 43 percent, with 53 percent saying the costs outweighed the benefits.
Views in Elkhart tend toward exasperation, a collective throwing-up of hands, rather than the competing emotions of anger and pride over the Iraq war at its combustible peak. Even people who think U.S. troops should keep fighting tend to say so in reluctant tones.
"We're stuck. I just wish we could pull out, but we can't," said Becky Cole, an office manager having a drink recently at the Bulldog, a restaurant in east Elkhart. "The one thing I hate about it is we've been there nine years."
On the next stool, her friend Richard Meyers, a plant manager who lost his job in a downsizing four months ago, was drinking what he called a poor man's martini - Miller Lite with four olives. He was more blunt.
"We send our kids over there and bring them back in body bags. The answer? Japan," Meyers said, suggesting that the United States should drop a nuclear bomb. "The longer we're over there, the more we're going to pay."
"I never wanted my son to be a little old obituary in the paper," Donna Shoecraft explains, still reeling from the shock. When she learned that Justin was heading to Afghanistan to fight, she tried to talk him out of it, telling him, "You go over there, you're going to be in nothing but dirt, mud and sand."
She and her husband, Carroll, known as "Blue," don't know what inspired Justin to enlist in his mid-20s. Maybe the fact that he had always wanted to drive a tank. Maybe the bonus money and the chance to leave northern Indiana. A few months earlier, his mother had forbidden him from traveling to London. Too dangerous to visit such a big city alone, she said.
"We're just old factory people," Donna Shoecraft says. Blue wears an enormous gray beard and punches the clock at a local machine shop. On Sundays, he works at the local drag strip. He spends his spare time collecting Schwinn bicycles and fixing up old cars, most recently a '27 Dodge coupe, now a gleaming yellow.
After finishing high school in 2001, Justin Shoecraft showed little interest in the military recruiting pitches that came his way. He spent six years hefting boxes for UPS. "Big heart, do anything for you," said Kevin Doctor, who often gave him a ride to work. "Real mild-mannered, head down. The kind of guy who flew under the radar." He married his girlfriend the day before he left for basic training.
When a pair of soldiers appeared unannounced at the Shoecrafts' front door the other day, Donna Shoecraft screamed so loudly that neighbors four houses away heard her. The war that she had long doubted finally broke her heart.
"Why are we there? Why are we even there?" she asked a few days later, the shock still fresh. "Start taking care of our own people."
From the front door of his secondhand shop down the street, Don Fisher watches the comings and goings at the Shoecrafts' home. He was fond of Justin and considers Blue Shoecraft a real friend. But he has not stopped by.
"I need to go down and hug him, and I just can't bring myself to do it," Fisher said. "Because I know that when I do, I'm going to cry, too."
Fisher is an Army veteran who voted twice for George W. Bush and backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Obama. Although polls show stronger support for the war among Republicans than Democrats, Fisher says he always considered the Afghan war unwinnable. The billions in taxpayer dollars should be spent on "people who are sleeping under bridges or living out of food banks," he said.
Yet he is torn between withdrawing now and fighting toward some sort of equilibrium.
"We've been there too long, way too long. I just think it's a useless war," said Fisher, a soldier from 1958 to 1967. "But we can't really pull out now, because the other nations would think we're cowards."
The rising casualties and the preoccupation with the economy are contributing to doubts about the U.S. mission, said Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore, a Democrat who won 66 percent of the vote in this Republican town.
Although the city's unemployment rate has fallen about a half-dozen points from its high of 21 percent, Moore said, worries about the economic future trump all. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) agreed, saying "this economy has been front and center on everyone's mind."
"It's not that people are disinterested, it's simply that the economic issues have become so prominent," said Donnelly, who has traveled three times to Afghanistan. During his current campaign, only once or twice a day will someone mention the war. When it comes to Afghanistan, he said, "the most common thing I hear people say is, 'Boy, we sure hope we can get this working and figured out.'â"
Sue Glaser is among those who think the war must be fought and fought hard, for the safety of the United States and the future of women in Afghanistan. A retired furniture designer, Glaser feels "sick about the boys," but says she believes a military pullout ahead of Obama's 2011 timetable would amount to surrender.
"We should go in with both barrels and see if we can win it. We've got to get the Taliban out of there," Glaser said. "If we let them get away with it, our children are going to be fighting them."
In his senior photo in Memorial High's 2001 yearbook, Justin Shoecraft is wearing a T-shirt. Four photos to the left in the same row is classmate Aaron Seal, who joined the Marines after graduation.
Seal died on patrol in Iraq's Anbar province on Oct. 1, 2006. The flagpole outside the administration building is dedicated to him, "our home town hero." Meyers, the teacher, wants to do something similar for Shoecraft, "just an all-around good guy" who deserves to be remembered.
As the Iraq war winds down and the fight for Afghanistan intensifies, storekeeper Don Fisher says he thinks Indiana's fallen soldiers are not receiving their due from a public that has turned its attention elsewhere. Three years ago, he built a memorial wall on the corner lot next his shop. He wants to spruce it up but says "donations just aren't coming in like they used to."
"I'm proud that I've done it, and it's a great honor to our veterans, but it's sad," said Fisher, whose wall bears more than 120 military names. He visits the wall at least once a day, sometimes to meet visitors. "You feel the people's pain and see the tears run down their face. It tears a little bit of your heart out to see them crying."
Last week, Fisher added five names and photographs to the wall. Among them was Spec. Justin B. Shoecraft, dressed in his Army uniform, the Stars and Stripes behind him.
Fisher keeps replaying in his mind a conversation he had a few months back with Blue Shoecraft.
" 'Don,' he said, 'I hope my son's name never goes up on that wall.' " Fisher recalled. "I said, 'That'll probably never happen.' "
Polling director Jon Cohen and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.