Mississippi Town Supports War Despite Losses

American Legion Post Commander Bill Wardlaw stands in front of a granite war memorial in Pontotoc. i i

American Legion Post Commander Bill Wardlaw stands in front of a granite monument in Pontotoc's court square that honors those who have died serving their country. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR
American Legion Post Commander Bill Wardlaw stands in front of a granite war memorial in Pontotoc.

American Legion Post Commander Bill Wardlaw stands in front of a granite monument in Pontotoc's court square that honors those who have died serving their country.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

Remembering the Fallen

Lance Cpl. Marc "Lucas" Tucker; Cpl. Blake Mounce; Pvt. Barry Mayo; Staff Sgt. John Self
Courtesy the servicemen's families

(Clockwise, from top left) Marine Lance Cpl. Marc "Lucas" Tucker, 24, died June 8, 2005, when his vehicle hit a hole and flipped over during a night mission. He had planned to make the military a career.

Marine Cpl. Blake Mounce, 22, was killed by a roadside bomb on July 14, 2005, leaving behind his wife, Tiffany. He was buried on what would have been his 23rd birthday.

Staff Sgt. John Self, 29, was a member of the Air Force security police. He died May 14, 2007, when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device while he was training Iraqi police. Self had wanted to get a job in law enforcement after his military service.

Army Pvt. Barry Mayo, 21, was killed by an improvised explosive device on March 5, 2007, while on combat operations. Mayo had loved to play basketball.

Jill Self and Donna Bagwell are two of the Pontotoc mothers who have lost their sons in Iraq. i i

Jill Self (left) and Donna Bagwell are two of the Pontotoc mothers who have lost their sons in Iraq. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR
Jill Self and Donna Bagwell are two of the Pontotoc mothers who have lost their sons in Iraq.

Jill Self (left) and Donna Bagwell are two of the Pontotoc mothers who have lost their sons in Iraq.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
American flags fly every day in downtown Pontotoc, Miss. i i

U.S. flags fly every day in downtown Pontotoc, Miss. Many here say the town of about 5,000 is among the most patriotic in the U.S. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR
American flags fly every day in downtown Pontotoc, Miss.

U.S. flags fly every day in downtown Pontotoc, Miss. Many here say the town of about 5,000 is among the most patriotic in the U.S.

Kathy Lohr, NPR
Members of the Pontotoc High School marching band practice on the field behind their school. i i

Members of the Pontotoc High School marching band practice for an upcoming program. In addition to playing at football games, the band also participates in special parades on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR
Members of the Pontotoc High School marching band practice on the field behind their school.

Members of the Pontotoc High School marching band practice for an upcoming program. In addition to playing at football games, the band also participates in special parades on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

More than 3,700 American troops have died since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Word of new casualties has become somewhat commonplace and memorials have appeared in communities to honor the fallen.

Rising casualties have caused some Americans to question their support for the war — but not the tiny town of Pontotoc, Miss. The community in northeast Mississippi has lost four servicemen, but the townspeople still talk about love for their country and about the willingness of their young people to serve and to sacrifice. Flags fly on Main Street every day, and a picture window next to the utility company displays flowers, photos and poems dedicated to the four local servicemen who died in Iraq.

"People who have served have always been highly respected in our part of the nation," says retired Judge Fred Wicker, a veteran who served in World War II. He is among those gathered at the local American Legion Post in the city of about 5,000. Photos of soldiers framed in red, white and blue line one wall.

Wicker and the post commander, Bill Wardlaw, say soldiers here are honored for their service.

"I don't think the flame of national patriotism burns any brighter anywhere in the United States than it does in the southeastern part of the United States," Wicker says.

"And it has a lot to do with upbringing," Wardlaw adds. "Our parents were this way — had this mentality. They thought highly of people who served in the military."

In downtown Pontotoc, the courthouse square is evolving into a military square. In the center, a statue honors those who fought in the Civil War. Not far from a large magnolia tree, the county installed a granite monument to pay tribute to those from Pontotoc who have died in battle. Now, Wardlaw says, veterans are adding to the list.

"We have two of our young men who have been killed in Iraq, their names are there. The other two we are in the process of adding now," he says.

Those just added are 24-year-old Lance Cpl. Marc Lucas Tucker, known as "Lucas," and 22-year-old Cpl. Blake Mounce, both Marines. Their mothers, who didn't know each other well before they lost their sons, have now become good friends.

Mothers Share Pain of Loss

It had only been six weeks since Donna Bagwell's son was killed when she offered a shoulder to Pat Mounce, whose son had also become a casualty of war.

Both boys wanted to join the military, and they were aware of the danger. Bagwell says her oldest daughter got an e-mail from her son Lucas the day he died.

"In the e-mail he told her, he said, 'Mama keeps asking questions that she really doesn't want to know the answer to, so I just lie and tell her everything's fine over here,' he said. 'But I hope everybody understands.'"

Pat Mounce says her son Blake would always try to make her feel better about his job in Iraq, but two days before he died, he let on that things were getting rough.

"Blake told his daddy more than he would tell me, but every time, you know, I'd ask, he'd say, 'I'm fine,'" Mounce says. "The last time I talked to him, he said, 'I'm not going to have to go out [on] any more dangerous patrols. The last thing he said to me was 'Mama, don't forget about me.'"

Neither Mounce nor the community has forgotten. Hundreds attended funeral services. People lined the sidewalks and highways for miles to pay tribute, and there was a memorial service on the court square. But more than that, Bagwell says, people here honor the soldiers every day, like the time the family took Lucas to dinner just after he got out of boot camp.

"And there was a man there at the restaurant that came over, and he saluted him and he said, 'I just want to shake your hand and tell you thank you' ... and he was just out of boot camp. He hadn't even been to war," she says. "This country is something really special, and there's a lot of people that don't know that."

An Outpouring of Support

With tears in her eyes, another mother, Jill Self, opens a scrapbook that folks in the community signed at the local Wal-Mart after her son died last May, when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device. Staff Sgt. John Self was part of the Air Force security police in Iraq.

"They just had [the scrapbook] up there on the table at the front and different ones just came by and signed it. People I went to school with, people he went to school with," Self says as she looks over the messages.

The emotions are still pretty raw for Self, who remembers the day she found out her son died. She had just left for work when her husband called and told her to get home. A government car and four men in uniform were waiting at her house. Self knew why they were there.

"It's still kind of blurry sometimes. My husband, he even changed the ring on the doorbell. He said, 'I don't want to hear that sound again.' I said, 'I wouldn't either,'" she says.

Jill Self says she was amazed at the reaction to her son's death. John's body was flown back to Columbus Air Force Base, which shut down as the plane landed. Afterward, some 6,000 people stood at attention.

"And when we were leaving, they were just lined up on both sides of the street going out," she recalls. "And if they were in the military, they saluted. If they were civilians, most of them had their hands over their heart, even the little bitty kids. I couldn't believe it."

Even when they got back to Pontotoc, people lined the streets for miles holding flags. John Self's longtime pastor from Algoma Baptist Church, Don Smith, spoke at the funeral. He told the crowd that John was a normal boy who grew up to be a true hero.

"You have to understand, John was raised in a church, on the Bible. That's where he got his character; that's where he got his convictions; that's where he got his concerns. And that's what he lived and died by. Now, that's different than most of the world, you have to understand," Smith says. "We believe that's why we love our country and serve our country, die for our country if need be."

Servicemen 'Have Touched Our Lives'

Back downtown, a friend of one of the fallen Marines, Lacy Mooneyham, stands outside the memorial window that honors the four servicemen.

"Each one of them have touched our lives in some kind of way," she says. "I want them to come home, but if you talk to them, you know they'd go back in a heartbeat because it's the right thing to do. They're fighting for their country."

People in Pontotoc, Miss., don't debate the Iraq war. They don't talk much about whether it's time to bring the troops home. Families continue to show their willingness to serve and — if necessary — to sacrifice even more.

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