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Small Town’s Salute Is Bittersweet as Its Soldiers March Off to the Gulf : Defense: The call-up of National Guardsmen plucked 61 men from the work force in Springfield, Ky. But the emotional strain is felt the most.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everyone here will long remember Dec. 10, the day the 623rd Battalion--the first unit of the Kentucky National Guard to be called up for deployment to the Persian Gulf--left home.

“They said it was a military secret but the word traveled word-of-mouth, and we had hundreds of people lining the streets carrying yellow ribbons and waving flags,” Ninie Glasscock, managing editor of the Springfield Sun, recalls.

But while the send-off lifted Springfield’s pride and spirit, it also has left a gaping hole in this tiny farming and industrial community of 2,900.

The deployment to the gulf plucked 61 men from the Springfield area’s work force, some of them students and recent graduates and others who farmed or worked in local factories or stores. Many local residents are doubling up on their workloads until the field artillery unit returns.

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But it is the emotional strain that is felt most here as Springfield waits--anxiously--for the confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to come to a head.

Melinda Carey, a loan officer, says the impact--particularly at Christmastime--has been traumatic. “In a big city, it doesn’t mean as much when boys go off,” Carey says, “but this could decimate a small community like ours. In these places, everyone knows everyone.

“I was just eight years old when a boy in (neighboring) Bardstown was killed in Vietnam and I remember what I was doing, what I was wearing--everything,” Carey recalls. “Everyone has large families, and everyone is related.”

Dan Kelly, a local state senator, who was born here but is still considered a newcomer because he moved away for a few years, agrees. “The Christmas spirit definitely got killed by Saddam Hussein,” he says.

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Indeed, partly because of the impact of the call-up, the town has been unable to exult in its good economic fortune.

Although many small towns are beginning to feel the current slowdown, Springfield is on something of a roll. Its fledgling industries are expanding and on the day the troops left for the gulf a Japanese company announced that it would build a new plant in the county.

It was “a happy day and a sad day,” Springfield Mayor John W. Cecconi recalls.

But the call-up of the 623rd has left many families in uncomfortable straits and resulted in some cases of serious hardship. One woman here was laid off from her job a week after her husband left for the gulf. Another gave birth to a baby an hour after the troops left town.

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Predictably, perhaps, for a small town, Springfield residents have been pulling together to support each other during the travail.

In less than two weeks, the area’s 11 support groups have collected more than $600 in donations for families in financial jeopardy because of the deployment. Local merchants have agreed to grant them extended credit.

The town’s umbrella Gulf Support Group plans to send packages of food and clothing to all men of the 623rd every month, and--by request from the front--local school officials are gearing up to send the troops videotapes of the town’s high school basketball games.

To top that off, Charlie Walls, a local musician, has written a song, “Ten Thousand Miles Away,” recounting the send-off that the 623rd received three weeks ago. “We get the most requests for that and Eddie Rabbit’s ‘American Boy,’ ” says disc jockey Andy Carter.

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For all the sadness, Cecconi says that most Springfield residents still strongly support the U.S. troops, even if they don’t necessarily agree with President Bush’s overall policy in the gulf.

“He may be wrong in some peoples’ eyes, but I don’t think he’s wrong in the people’s eyes around here,” says Cecconi, a Democrat in a heavily democratic and predominantly Catholic town.

“I’d be the last person to run down the commander-in-chief of the United States, whether he’s Democrat or Republican,” Cecconi asserts.

To many of Springfield’s older residents, who themselves were veterans of previous call-ups, the pullout earlier this month brought memories, good and bad.

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James R. Clements, an octogenarian, recalls waving goodby to Springfield’s 123rd Cavalry as it loaded up at the city’s train station in the winter of 1917. Twenty-three years later, he himself was called up as part of the same unit.

And Bill Waters, an electronics store owner who was called for service in Korea on Dec. 23, 1950, says he felt pride and a little envy as he watched his neighbors leaving for the Persian Gulf.

“But it was different back then,” Waters acknowledges. “We trained just up the street on Armory Hill every day and then marched into town, ate dinner at the restaurant and went home. People would watch us and get out of our way. I was just 19 and I loved all that attention.”

Waters said that there was much he would have liked to have said to the troops this time, but nothing came out. “I just took my hat off, your heart kind of swells,” he says.

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