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COLLATERAL DAMAGE: How The Iraq War Effects Your Town

COLLATERAL DAMAGE:  How The Iraq War Effects Your Town





By Bob Reiss


The Iraq War was in the news that morning, coming over car radios all over the country when Joe Dauffenbach died. For years local officials in Southern Minnesota had sought federal dollars to widen sections of Route 14, a road they call a death trap. But when they went to Washington, last March, hats in hand, “I’d talk about Route 14,” said Pat Hentges, city manager of Mankato. “But the Senators and Congressmen would switch the conversation to Iraq. The war was getting in the way.”

So on sunny April 16, when the 60 year old retired postal worker’s pickup truck veered across the center line into an oncoming semi, folks here learned of one more fatality in the long list. “If the money had been there to put in four lanes and a median,” lamented North Mankato Mayor Gary Zellmer, Joe’s brother-in-law, “Joe would have gone into the ditch. He might still be alive.”

IF THE MONEY HAD BEEN THERE, are words you hear often in Mankato these days. Like millions of Americans, people here are starting to wonder if their community is losing funding or missing out on programs because of the war, if Washington is too distracted to pay full attention to local needs.

IF FEDERAL MONEY HAD BEEN THERE for Daniel Starrett’s preventative health care, for instance, says the deep voiced Mankato trucker, he wouldn’t have had to sell his truck to pay off $10,000 in hospital bills last spring.  Starrett couldn’t afford to pay for food, truck repairs and fuel and still afford health insurance, or prescription drugs for his diabetes. When an abscess developed in his back, he was less able to fight off massive infection.

“Daniel never would have landed up in the emergency room if he’d had preventive care,” Dr. Ann Vogel, his physician, said.

Or how about Tremayne Johnson, age 14. IF MONEY HADN’T BEEN CUT from the federally funded South Central Children’s Project, says Al Roehm, its youth development coordinator, then the trim, athletic boy’s Tai Kwan Do lessons wouldn’t have been canceled. After that, Tremayne’s grades plunged. He stole a bicycle. He hit another kid. His mom doesn’t know what to do. Now he reports to a probation officer instead of a martial arts class. Blue Earth County police predict an influx of troubled kids to the criminal justice system soon, because after school programs stopped.

“Believe me, it’s cheaper to pay $200 for Tai Kwan Do lessons than $50,000 a year if a kid ends up in the corrections system,” said Josh Milow, who supervises juvenile probation officers for Blue Earth County.




Currently, Iraq war costs have reached $455 billion, or over $330 million each day, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Total eventual costs may exceed 2.3 trillion dollars. So far, Iraq war bills average out to $3,436 per US taxpayer, or roughly five per cent of federal income taxes paid. Says James R. Horney of Washington’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “By the time the war is over, just the interest on monies borrowed to pay for it could top $80 billion a year.”

“We could have provided universal health care with the money spent so far,” says Linda Bilmes, Harvard lecturer, who has written widely on war costs with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. “We could have made social security solvent for the next 50 years. We could have funded the prescription drug bill. We could have paid for a major renovation of highways.”

How do you measure the ripple effect of war? Consider Mankato, Minnesota, which may sound familiar to you because it was the “big city” where settlers bought supplies in the “Little House On The Prairie” books and famous TV show. Today the area’s 47,000 residents live in a lovely setting along the Minnesota River, 80 miles south of Minneapolis. Local farmers grow soybeans and corn. Local factories produce electrical generators, and process soybeans. Local colleges serve over 19,000 students. Generally conservative Mankato voters have sent both Democrats and Republicans to Congress. The city hosts units of the National Guard and Army Reserve, both back from combat tours in Iraq, and it is also home to a few hundred Somali and Sudanese war refugees. Mankato’s citizen’s are divided in support of the war, united in supporting the troops.

“There isn’t anyone in this community that doesn’t have someone or know someone who’s been in service over there,” Pat Hentges says.



Pastor Steve Kosberg at Hosannah Lutheran Church, and Deisy de Leon Esqueda, who runs the food shelf, say low income people they serve need more help to pay for food and fuel. Oil prices have hit records highs since the war began, partly, says Linda Bilmes, due to destabilization from the conflict.

“We have more human beings at the end of their economic rope. They say it’s because of gasoline,” said Kosberg. “More and more, we go to our emergency fund to help them.”

Mayor John Brady said, “More people are buying clothes at the Salvation Army store. These are people who wouldn’t have shopped there a few years back.”

Doctor Ann Vogel at the Open Door clinic said the growing case load of uninsured patients is overwhelming. Federal funding for clinics like Open Door has risen under the Bush Administration, she added, but more is needed.

Josh Milow, who supervises juvenile probation officers in Blue Earth County, says that after federal monies were cut to after-school activities, police saw a rise in juvenile delinquency.

Even local charity groups have been effected. In a warehouse on the west side of town, a group of hairnetted church volunteers packed bags of food aid headed for Latin America as part of the “Kids Against Hunger” program. But Division Director Tim Stromer said that transporting the food was getting harder. Before the war, the military helped move it for free, Tim said. Now, with the military occupied elsewhere, the charity pays a private company.

But the fallout goes beyond the financial. Beneath the calm surface, many described heightened anxiety. “Care giving fatigue,” said the Pastor; “reluctance to spend money;” said the owner of a tanning salon; “sapping of optimism” said the Mayor, fueled by emergency drills to measure response time should a terrorist attack occur. “Everyone’s waiting for the next shoe to drop,” said Joe Spear, managing editor of the Mankato Free Press.



So far, Mankato’s Congressional District has contributed $1.16 billion as their share of the Iraq war, according to the National Priorities Project, a private research group that calculates costs across the US. That amount could have paid for health care for 95,000 children, or 7,423 units of affordable housing, project spokespersons say.

Of course, COULD have doesn’t mean WOULD have. David Smith, Chief Economist for the House Financial Services Committee, believes that Bush White House spending priorities for domestic programs would be the same even without the Iraq war.

“The move to cut taxes, shrink government and privatize carried the day when taxes were cut in the first three years of the Bush Administration, before Iraq,” he said.

And Tony Fratto, Deputy White House Press Secretary stated the President’s position flatly when he recently told reporters, “poor children getting health care and the needs of our troops can both be accomplished.”

But Congressman Tim Walz of Mankato – himself a veteran of the National Guard – sat in his Main Street Mankato office recently and disagreed. If the war ended tomorrow, the trade-off between savings on military spending and additions to local spending, “wouldn’t be dollar for dollar, but there would be more here.”

Walz said he became furious, remembering Joe Dauffenbach’s death last April, when he sat in Congress recently and heard US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker request funding for a new highway trust fund for Iraq.

“And there’s no money for Route 14? That doesn’t work for us.”

In the end, money wise, the $2.8 billion federal budget boils down to a few million personal stories. Linda Bilmes suggested some questions to ask yourself when determining the impact of the Iraq war on your area. Have your heating bills gone up? Have after school programs or programs for the elderly – partially paid by Washington – been cut back because funding is flat? As inflation rises, is your school board holding bond initiatives just to keep existing programs – partially funded by federal dollars – going?

Ironically, one of the greatest costs concerning folks here is one they WANT to pay, one that Bilmes predicts may be the highest of the war, coming decades of long term medical and disability bills for wounded veterans. These costs may top $650 billion by the time the last Iraq vet passes away.

On a recent fall day, 56 year old Tom McNamara sat in his darkened Mankato home, anxiously awaiting word from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington about his son Jason. Jason – one of two sons sent to Iraq – was wounded in March 2006 while rescuing comrades under fire. Jason suffered shrapnel injuries and multiple fractures to both legs and heels. His parents have taken time off from their jobs to be with him as he shuttles between Mankato and Washington for extensive surgery and therapy.

Says McNamara, “I worry that he’ll have trouble physically for the rest of his life.”

Tom’s neighbors held fund raisers early on to help pay family bills with the parents off from work.

Tom praised the care Jason is getting but added, “These guys need advocates. I feel sorry for the ones who don’t have them.”

His worries brought to mind the words of Mankato’s Colonel Michael Rath, 58-year-old First Brigade combat team surgeon from the National Guard – and a family physician in town – just back from his second tour in Iraq. Rath said that thanks to strides made in medicine, today’s veterans survive wounds that would have killed them in other wars. But they will require medical care all their lives.

“I hope that America will still honor its wounded twenty years down the road when the memories of this conflict become an asterisk in the pages of history,” he said.

Rath did not praise or condemn the war, but his concern about the veterans was heightened by his belief that the country has not yet fully examined the costs of the war. “We Americans have had the guns versus butter debate – the one about priorities – for every war except this one.”

It is only now – in many homes in Mankato and across the US – that millions of Americans are beginning to question the full price they’re paying for the war.