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CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Sometimes the kids at Minglewood Elementary gather in a conference room to talk, green-clad stick-people drawings decorating the wall behind them.
How many get to talk to Dad on Skype? All six raise a hand.
How many will have Dad home for Christmas? Two.
How does that make them feel? Silence for a moment. Then Evelynn Johnson takes a deep breath and adjusts her little purple glasses. Like so many of her classmates, she's seen too much to sound like the fifth-grader she is.
"What helps me is to not focus on him being gone," Evelynn says. "One time I cried because my dad was going, and he told me, ‘You are sacrificing for this country. You're helping out this country just by being my daughter.'"
These are the children of the soldiers at Fort Campbell. They've never known life without war. And so they don't know what it's like to be free of the nervous-stomach cycle of parents fighting overseas, coming home a different person with every tour, calming down just in time for another call to duty.
Unless you live near Fort Campbell, it's easy to forget that more than a decade of war on the other side of the globe has inflicted unofficial casualties right here at home. But while the expression "Support Our Troops!" has lost meaning from overuse, the community that hosts some of the nation's most fearsome fighters must face wounded soldiers and their families every day.
A tall, beige-brick wall cordons off Fort Campbell from Clarksville, but the two are inseparable. The city's main artery is 101st Airborne Division Parkway. Businesses endear themselves to soldiers with military names, like Screaming Eagle Express Car Wash. At lunch, the Chinese buffet line across from Fort Campbell's Gate Seven looks more like an Army chow hall than an ethnic restaurant.
Of the 30,400 soldiers and 53,100 family members assigned to Fort Campbell, two-thirds of them live off the base. About 400 of their own have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and soldiers return with untold numbers of physical injuries and psychological damage.
Some wonder whether there's enough therapy in the world to change that.
"[Post-traumatic stress disorder] is contagious, as it turns out," said Dr. Robert Begtrup, a psychiatrist who launched a school-based program for soldiers' children. Now he's in private practice, working with children in Clarksville and other Middle Tennessee areas.
He sees some who wake screaming at 2 a.m. because that's what their parents do. He sees families isolating because they don't feel understood, living a war that's been fought without most Americans sacrificing a single thing. Even though Clarksville does all it can to support them, he said, these damaged families are being called "the new normal" by some.
But while it may be new, it will never be normal.
"They've all done their best to host events, provide resources, be open and caring," he said. "But there's no fairy dust that you can spread and make it all OK. It's sitting with a person who is sometimes scary, sometimes miserable, sometimes suicidal and just hanging in there."
The deployments, meanwhile, keep coming. The first strike team out of Clarksville's Fort Campbell — or at least the first one of public record — left for Afghanistan in November 2001. The base's timeline shows brigades leaving at least every other year since. Another leaves for Bagram, Afghanistan, this winter.
The Army had a branchwide "standdown" day in September to focus on suicide training and prevention. Fort Campbell chaplain Jeff Houston said the Army suicide rate increased the past seven out of eight years, with 38 in July alone.
Soldiers return facing brain injuries, PTSD, spouses' infidelity and financial crises.
President Obama says the Army will be out of Afghanistan in 2014, but soldiers say they can't look forward to that because potential deployments to Syria and Libya loom large in their minds.
War is a growth industry
Clarksville's population grew quickly in the war years, from about 104,000 in the 2000 census to 133,000 in 2010. And while business leaders successfully attracted other employers, none of them comes close to the impact or recognition of Uncle Sam.
By the time soldiers' kids are teens, they identify themselves as "military dependents." Soldiers readily announce that they've never been stationed anywhere as supportive as Clarksville. About 64,000 veterans from all military branches have retired to homes around Fort Campbell.
That sort of closeness comes with a price, one apparent to the Rev. Jodi McCullah, director of Soldiers and Families Embraced.
Her nonprofit is housed in a weather-worn building across the street from Austin Peay State University. In calming blue rooms, McCullah and her staff of 10 part-time counselors help soldiers, veterans and their families cope.
Once a month, SAFE invites the city's counselors to be counseled themselves. The stories their patients have told them spill out: Soldiers traumatized by seeing a body used to hide a bomb. Wives terrified by the sound of mortar fire in the background while Skyping with their husbands. Children who aren't sure what their role in the family is anymore.
"You can't be dealing with this kind of stress for 12 years and not have people get tired and frustrated," McCullah said. "It manifests itself as anger and impatience. Soldiers and their families have such high needs during deployments, it can be overwhelming."
It's not about guilt
Clarksville's newest push to reach troubled soldiers comes from its churches, and, like just about everything else in the city, it has an Army-friendly name: Maximizing our Ministry to our Military. Pastors gathered in November for their first meeting.
Churches are ideal places to help because there are lots of them, a Fort Campbell chaplain told the group. And after all, he said, who was biblical character King David if not a special operations soldier changed by war? But while the room was full, Grace Nazarene Church Pastor Steve Estep felt disappointment.
Three hundred churches in Clarksville, he said, and the 50 pastors represented were the ones always involved with base life.
About 500 people attend Sunday services at Grace Nazarene, most of them soldiers and veterans and their families. They're not necessarily Nazarenes when they first show up; they've just heard from friends that Grace cares about people like them — and that it doesn't forget about them if they're overseas a year at a time or transferred out of Clarksville altogether.
The church provides child care for monthly date nights and occasional weekend spiritual retreats for soldiers and their families. The first session isn't on why God allows war, Estep said. It's about getting guilt off the table.
"Theologically, there's a word for ‘murder' and a word for ‘kill,' and those are two different words," he said. "Most are hearing that for the first time, and you can almost physically see the relief."
Beyond yellow ribbons
Government agencies in Clarksville and Montgomery County also step in, going well beyond the big yellow ribbon displays that have become de rigueur over the past decade.
Kleeman Community Center, only a few miles from the base, holds wheelchair basketball games between soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion — where soldiers recovering from mental and physical war injuries go to recover — and civilians. The community center staff keeps score while the men crash into each other fearlessly, no longer able to run after basketballs but acting like the soldiers they still are.
In July, the county launched a special Veterans Court to help soldiers and former soldiers who get themselves into trouble with civilian authorities.
It has taken 41 cases since it opened, with weekly gatherings of mentors, counselors and judges to review the cases.
It's been a lifesaver for Spc. Branden Lee, charged with driving while his license was revoked, reckless endangerment and domestic assault after a night of drinking that followed a fellow soldier's funeral.
The charges meant his unit deployed without him while he faced civil authorities, but Lee feels more encouraged than ever.
When he talks about the court's more understanding approach, his voice conveys disbelief. And then he says something remarkable in a nation where "Support Our Troops!" seems to mean less than it once did: "I think it's amazing that they give soldiers the opportunity to recover."