Death of bin Laden good news for Wyoming’s military families

CODY — Many residents across Wyoming were no doubt rejoicing along with the rest of the country late Sunday night, as news spread of the successful effort by U.S. forces to kill Osama bin Laden, who approved the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But Wyoming and other Mountain West states with a high percentage of rural communities are perhaps cheering a little louder, and not without good reason.

Two unidentified pararescuemen from Moody Air Force Base remove an all-terrain vehicle from packing materials following a parachute jump onto a ranch near Lovell during training operations in 2008. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

According to U.S. Census data and studies conducted by numerous groups with wide-ranging political leanings, rural America (including Wyoming) has provided a disproportionate number of military recruits since the attacks of 9/11.

In the nation’s least populous state, that outsize contribution may be felt even more acutely, as almost any resident in one of Wyoming’s close-knit, small communities is likely to personally know someone who has served. Therrel “Shane” Childers, a 30-year-old U.S. Marine from Powell, was the first American killed in the war in Iraq.

Though the question of military demographics has often been treated as something of a political football, the U.S. Army’s web site for recruiting states that the “Army is significantly over-represented for enlistments from the South Atlantic, West South Central and Mountain Divisions,” which includes Wyoming. Nearly half of all fiscal year 2009 recruits were from those areas, and the “enlisted Army recruit population is skewed more toward rural and suburban areas than is the total population of 17-24 year-old youth in the United States,” it states.

Sgt. Francisco Ortiz tests his packing skills while walking a donkey in Powell as part of training in 2006 for the 10th Mountain Division. (courtesy photo — click to enlarge)

Wyoming’s distinct geography and winter weather has brought some unexpected sights during the last 10 years, as military personnel have sought cooperative communities where they can stage training exercises in remote terrain and conditions similar to Afghanistan.

More than 30 members of the 10th Mountain Division worked with Park County residents in 2006 to learn the finer points of mule skinning in the McCullough Peaks. They would (presumably) later put their new-found pack mule skills to use on resupply missions high in the mountains of Afghanistan.

More than 50 airmen from the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga. came to a ranch near Lovell in 2007 to practice rescue and recovery operations in preparation for activities in Afghanistan. (They ended up helping with spring branding at the ranch.)

And in December 2008, eight active-duty U.S. Air Force personnel made their way across the hostile and fictional “Republic of Wyoming” as part of a downed air  crew escape scenario supervised by a retired U.S. Army Special Forces member from Pinedale, and aided by volunteer veterans from across the state.

Sgt. 1st Class James Menne of the U.S. Special Operations Command parachute demonstration team jumps into Mentock Park in Cody during that town's 2007 Honor Our Special Forces Weekend activities. (Ruffin Prevost/WyoFIle — click to enlarge)

Those are just a few examples of how communities across the state have quietly answered the call to pitch in and help those serving overseas. For the past several years, Cody has hosted an Honor Our Special Forces Weekend, a celebration designed to recognize the clandestine Special Operations troops that perform dangerous duties — like the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan — while steering clear of the spotlight. Many other Wyoming communities hold similar events.

Bin Laden’s death won’t mark an end to violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, or put a stop to the efforts of terrorists to strike at America and its allies. But, along with multiple popular democratic uprisings across the region, his death offers the best reason for optimism that Wyoming residents and other Americans serving overseas may be able to come home soon, returning with a well-earned sense of pride and accomplishment.

Americans may disagree on everything from the justification for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the interrogation methods used to learn about Al Qaeda operations or bin Laden’s whereabouts to the exceedingly high financial and human costs of eventually silencing him forever.

But for those in Wyoming who have a friend or loved one in the military or in a civilian role supporting the ongoing fight against terror, bin Laden’s death is likely to be seen as good news — and another reminder of the debt of gratitude owed to those who serve.

Contact WyoFile managing editor Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or ruffin@wyofile.com.

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