Small Towns Remember

We’re catching up on news after spending most of the week a half-day’s drive from here and mostly unplugged. This article from the Chronicle caught my eye. It’s about the homecoming of Army Spc. Brett Bartlett to Sycamore after four years’ service in Afghanistan and Germany.

The Bartletts met Brett at 1 p.m. at O’Hare International Airport, where they received an escort from the Chicago Police Department through the airport. The CPD also escorted the family to the Des Plaines Oasis on Interstate 90, where they met up with about 20 members of the Warriors’ Watch Riders group.

Warriors’ Watch Riders is a troop support group that provides motorcycle escorts for military units returning from war, for units deploying and individual soldiers returning…

Seventeen bikers escorted the Bartletts home, exiting I-90 at Route 47 and taking Route 72 into Genoa, then down Route 23 into Sycamore. State police officers on motorcycles escorted them along the way, as did police officers in the towns they passed through.

This is somewhat unusual for our area. It seems different in other parts of Illinois. In fact this past week I’ve had occasion to think about how easy it is for many in DeKalb to forget neighbors are still serving in harm’s way.

The occasion was our arrival to a community that is in mourning.

Sullivan, Illinois, has about 4300 inhabitants. It is the county seat of tiny Moultrie County (population est. 14,500) and typically serves as a pit stop for vacationers heading south to Wolf Creek State Park, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites and other recreational areas on and around Lake Shelbyville.

As we passed through Sullivan for the first time Tuesday afternoon, city workers and others were placing American flags on light posts along Route 32 in preparation of the return of Sgt. Gerrick D. Smith, a 19-year-old National Guardsman who died in Afghanistan last week.

That’s not all. Sullivan’s townfolk have nailed signs with painted yellow ribbons, names and branches of the military for each of its sons and daughters who is serving — and have been doing so since 2004.

If you’ve not been quite aware how disproportionately small-town and rural America has been serving in the military, the Sullivan signs will bring it home for you. There are dozens. An informal, supportive network of family members and other neighbors sends care packages, hosts coffees and maintains a phone tree.

The edge of town is guarded by the National Guard armory for Headquarters Co. of the 634th Brigade Support Battalion, across a football field from Sullivan High School. The armory is quiet, its soldiers in Kabul. Beyond it, cornfields and single-lane county roads stretch for miles.

The 634th has an official Family Readiness Group to help spouses of deployed troops handle taxes and other paperwork. Often, that includes disputes with colleges abandoned by students who dropped course work to rush to Afghanistan, said Kelly Austin, 43, mother of a 22-year-old sergeant in Kabul for the 634th (who would be a senior this year at the University of Illinois) and a 20-year-old sailor on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.

Of course, this makes me think of our Reservists attending NIU.