WEBER CITY, VA. -- At the Sovran Bank in this tightknit mountain town, nothing hits harder or closer to home these days than a desert war being fought half a world away.
Huge yellow ribbons hang by the bank's front door. A prominently placed television monitors CNN, and four of Sovran's seven employees await word of family members in the Persian Gulf. Three -- Eileen Stata's nephew, Janice Fields's brother and Juanita Egan's son -- are among almost 200 Scott County residents serving with the 1033rd Transportation Company, the local detachment of the National Guard.
As they have for generations, soldiers from the Virginia mountains have marched off to war in disproportionately large numbers.
More than 400 reservists, both men and women, have departed rural Scott and Wise counties alone.
They joined up for reasons that have long made "the service" an institution here. In a place where jobs are often scarce and transitory, the National Guard is among the few reliable sources of money. And patriotism, the gut-level, my-country-right-or-wrong kind, runs as deep in mountain culture as coal.
Suddenly, however, live-via-satellite combat has left whole communities shaken and fearful. Almost everywhere, almost everyone has friends or family members in harm's way. While much of America watches an anonymous, high-tech war, Southwest Virginia knows its faces and names.
When the 1033rd pulled out in October, there was a parade of sorts, with hundreds of people lining the streets of neighboring Gate City at 6 o'clock on a Sunday morning.
"After they're gone, you come back and have a cup of coffee and have thoughts," said Scott County Sheriff Darrel McMurray. "How many are coming back? Are any coming back? It's sobering."
"It's all anybody talks about or thinks about," said Brenda Cox, of Gate City, whose husband, Gary, is a Virginia state trooper and a chemical warfare technician with the 1033rd.
"You're watching television," Cox said, "and there's a reporter in the desert saying, 'Here comes a missile,' and all of a sudden the screen goes blank. You're thinking, 'Is my husband there? Is he all right?' It's too much, almost."
To National Guard officials, it is purely an accident that the impact of war has fallen so heavily on the Virginia mountains.
They say the Guard has mobilized those units whose skills or training are in short supply in the gulf.
Southwest Virginia's troops, most of whom drive long-haul trucks that ferry supplies, ammunition and petroleum, are needed to keep the regular army battle-ready.
But to many in Southwest Virginia, this latest call to arms seems almost inevitable. Whenever America fights, they say, the coal fields bleed.
In Scott County, the military literally is part of the landscape. On a hill overlooking Gate City, the county seat, the National Guard armory sits only a few feet from the local high school.
Across the street is a plaque erected by the local American Legion post honoring the county's casualties in previous conflicts.
In World War II alone, 82 were killed.
Just across the state line from Scott County, in Tennessee's Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol area, another 800 reservists have been sent to the gulf, raising the total mobilized in a handful of counties in the two states to about 1,200. Though the exact number is uncertain, a sizable group of the area's men and women also serve in the regular military.
"My boyfriend is a Navy recruiter in Kingsport, and his business is booming," said Sheila Christian, of Weber City. "He can't get to the people who want to go in fast enough. People are saying, 'We want to go kick Saddam Hussein's ass.' "
Robin Hensley, of Gate City, whose brother is serving with the 1033rd, put it differently.
"If there's one thing people in America can cluster around, it's some big dog beating on a little dog," he said. "There's a lot of tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing rednecks here that are dying to show people what they can do for freedom."
So far, the exodus of Southwest Virginians to the Middle East has produced no local backlash against the war, and most residents do not expect one.
"This is a very conservative area, and you won't hear many questions about whether we're doing the right thing in the gulf," said Mark K. Reeter, the Gate City town manager. "People view Saddam Hussein as they would a terrorist. He may not be Hitler, but he's bad."
Added Gate City Mayor Billy W. Frazier, "People here know when their country needs them, and they go."
People in the coal fields also know they need the military. In an area where the mines have boomed and busted, and where factory layoffs are as common as new jobs, the armed forces have always been recession-proof. Joining up often is not a matter of life and death, but of dollars and cents.
At Weber City's Sovran Bank, Juanita Egan's son, Wesley, and Janice Fields's brother, William Nichols, are good examples.
Wesley Egan, who worked at a tire dealership, "has been in the Guard three years in April," Juanita Egan said. "He felt he could get the training he wanted to go into truck driving. His dad is a truck driver."
When the 1033rd departed, Juanita Egan said, her son "got married on Friday before he left on Sunday. He turned 21 the day they took off for Saudi Arabia . . . . I don't think he would have ever joined if he had known this was coming. I don't think he was expecting this."
Nichols, a 53-year-old shoe store owner, has 35 years in the National Guard, and Fields says he hopes to serve 40.
"He likes it," she said. "He's always said, 'Where else could I find a hobby that pays me this good?' "
Garland Stokes, who owns the Campus Restaurant near Gate City High School, counts three neighbors, three members of his church, one of his in-laws and a huge circle of friends with the 1033rd. "I think most people are in it for the second income," Stokes said. "For this area, it's a pretty good size supplement."
Ironically, the war has caused finanical problems for the families of some National Guard members. When Guard members are called to active duty, they receive regular Army pay; they lose the monthly stipend they customarily receive, and in some cases end up with considerably less than their regular paychecks.
"It cuts deep for a lot of people," said Robin Hensley. "There were a lot of tough Christmases last year."
At the Campus Restaurant and Gate City's East End Barber Shop, business is off.
"The day before the 1033rd left, we had every chair in the shop full," said Bill Smith, of East End. "Not since."
Billie Scyphers, manager of Weber City's Sovran branch, expects loan delinquencies to rise as the war continues.
For once, though, money seems an almost trivial concern compared with the other worries these communities face. Daily life is being disrupted in simple but profound ways.
"I had a lady go all to pieces in here the other day," said Juanita Egan, a teller at Sovran. "Her husband is gone, and she had never handled money in her life. She had never balanced a checkbook. She had never made a mortgage payment. She didn't know what to do, and she was terrified."
Gate City's Mayor Frazier once operated a local funeral home and remains a licensed mortician.
"A couple days ago I got a letter from the state board of embalmers and funeral directors, wanting to know if I would be available if we got a lot of casualties," Frazier said. "I said I would, of course. But how do you answer a letter like that?"
Unable to change the present, many in Scott County are focusing on the day when the National Guard will once again be only a weekend job. "There's already talk about having a countywide celebration when it's over," said Reeter, the Gate City manager.
"These people are seen as heroes, and we want to make sure they are given the support they deserve."
"Everybody here has a common dream: the day they come home," said Brenda Cox. "You can't help worrying while they're gone. We just think of the day they'll come back."