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Douglas Burns of Carroll, Iowa, recently watched as his closest friend returned to Iraq as a member of the Army Reserves. Burns has three friends serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. So do many others in Carroll, an agricultural and service-industries town of 10,000. On June 6th, the people of western Iowa held a sendoff for 120 Denison National Guard members — another sign that the war hits close to home for rural America.
Burns is a reporter and columnist for the Carroll Daily Times Herald, a newspaper his family has owned since 1929. In restaurants and town hall meetings across western Iowa, he has been interviewing the presidential hopefuls about rural issues. There are plenty to talk to, as the score of candidates now in the presidential race make Carroll a regular stop.
Burns has routinely asked candidates about the large numbers of rural resident serving in Iraq. Since the war began, studies have found that rural communities are over-represented among the troops fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat, told Burns, “One of the things I’ve been distressed about is the way folks in southern Illinois and rural western Iowa, that those are the folks that are disproportionately affected.” Senator Joe Biden, Burns said, “really seemed to have a handle on the facts”¦He really understood where people are from who are fighting the war.”
Douglas Burns interviews Sen. Obama in West-Central Iowa
Burns asked the same question of Republican Sen. John McCain, but received an entirely different answer. “I don’t think the numbers bear out that assertion, I think they’re from all over America,” McCain said, according to Burns. “They’re not from the wealthiest Americans. I will admit that. I have no statistic that indicates they’re mostly from rural America.”
The first story about story about the over-representation of rural communities in the military appeared in 2003. The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation found that the nation’s armed services were disproportionately rural. And last fall, analysis from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute reported that while rural Americans accounted for 27 percent of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, rural residents are only 19 percent of the United States adult population. Young adults (18-59 years of age) in rural counties have a casualty rate that is sixty percent higher that adults from urban areas, according to Carsey.
“I thought McCain, as a war hero and someone who has been a champion of the military, would understand that this is in many ways rural America’s foreign war,” Burns said in an interview. “It really surprised me that he did not understand that dimension.” Burns wrote about his interview with McCain for the Daily Times Herald; the columnist guessed that if asked again, McCain “might have a different answer.”