Leesville, La., Embraces Veterans as Their Own

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Leesville, La., Embraces Veterans as Their Own

LEESVILLE, La. — In a little-used parking lot, an abandoned newspaper rack displays the yellowed front page of the local newspaper. The headline, from April 15, 2011, reads: “Fort Polk loses two more soldiers.”

After more than 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Leesville, a town of 6,800, alongside Fort Polk, is steeped in military life and loss.

Produced by Caitlin Cruz/News21
Leesville, La., which calls itself the Best Hometown in the Army, has supported 15,000-plus men and women who have deployed from nearby Fort Polk since 9/11 as they return home.

The soldiers referred to in the newspaper headline, Pvt. Brandon T. Pickering and Sgt. Keith T. Buzinski, were two of about 15,000 service women and men who have deployed from the west-central Louisiana Army base and the surrounding town since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Both soldiers were members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.

Leesville bills itself as the Best Hometown in the Army. Nearly 25 percent of its residents identify as veterans. Here, daily life is the military and the military is daily life.

Whatever the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t do for its returning veterans, the people of Leesville believe they can.

The front page of each day’s Leesville Daily Leader reflects the strong emotional connection between the town and its military. The windows of the Leader’s building have handmade signs pledging support for Fort Polk.

Leesville nearly extends up to Fort Polk’s fences. Despite the base guards and gates, it’s difficult to discern much difference between Fort Polk and Leesville. Almost every tree has a yellow ribbon. Signs ranging from “Support the troops” to “We love Fort Polk!” are found at Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Thai Restaurant and the Super 8. Wagon Master Steakhouse’s sign congratulates the Army with “Job Well Done Troops.”

It’s to this community that veterans return from war, veterans like Shemeka Acey-Roy who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom on the USS Iwo Jima LHD-7. She’s the first female American Legion commander in the state of Louisiana — Post 510, the Buffalo Soldiers.

Produced by Rachel Leingang/News21
Shemeka Acey-Roy is Louisiana's first female commander of an American Legion post -- the Buffalo Soldiers of Leesville, La. She now works to make other female veterans feel at home.

“Sometimes you just want to sit down and talk with someone that has traveled the same road that you have,” she said. “It’s hard for me to talk to you about being out on the great blue sea, not being able to see your family. … You wouldn’t understand that.”

Acey-Roy — “conceived, born and raised in Leesville” — returned to town after leaving the Navy to care for her sick mother. After her mother died in 2011, she decided to stay.

“That’s the great thing about small-town USA,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody. You know how they say everybody in the world is connected by 10 people? In Leesville, everybody’s connected by two people.”

Those connections are never as profound as when Fort Polk loses a soldier, which is too often.

“This year, since October, 12 (deaths), just since October,” said Amy Camp, mortuary affairs coordinator at Fort Polk. Camp said she didn’t know how many from the base have been killed since 9/11 and besides, “I wouldn’t even want to know that number, I don’t think. But 12 just since October.”

Camp, whose husband is a retired first sergeant for the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain, processes, dresses and ships the bodies of the returning soldiers for their funerals. Any death is a blow to such a small community, but the military deaths bring the post and the town together.

“When we do the unit memorials, usually the chapel is packed, standing-room only and sometimes they’re outside,” Camp said. “They even come from off the installation for the unit memorials.”

Camp was raised in Easton, Md., a town similar in size to Leesville, but much different in sentiment. Unlike Leesville, people in Easton didn’t pay much attention to the wars in the Middle East — until a local soldier was killed.

“But when it finally, unfortunately, happened to one of theirs, they were like, ‘How do you all do that? How do the people outside the installation take that over and over and over?’” Camp said. “But we’re just very resilient.”

Leesville residents are resilient because they’ve all been through it before. Most people are connected to the military in some way, through their own service, family ties or employment.

“We’ve all been in,” Leesville Mayor Robert Rose said. “Either our fathers or mothers have been in and we’ve been in. We know what it’s like. The last deployment the 4-10 had, they had one battalion that was in a pretty bad area. They had a lot of casualties. We go to their memorial services. For every soldier, I go to their memorial services — and, you know, cry with them.”

As an Army veteran, Rose understands how important the base is to his town and how Leesville works to support its troops. “But I think what I’ve done is to help — I don’t take all credit for it — but with other elected officials and business leaders, is to help build this sense of, the military uses this term ‘esprit de corps,’ between all of us that we’re really one and the same. We really are a family.”

Most of the veterans in the area go to the VA clinic at Fort Polk for primary care. For those with more serious injuries, the closest VA hospital is in Pineville, La., about an hour from Leesville.

If veterans can’t get to a VA clinic, there are plenty of options for private healthcare in the area. Steve Humphries, chief of the Casualty Assistance Center at Fort Polk and an Army vet himself, said 90 percent of area doctors and hospitals accept TRICARE.

Some post-9/11 veterans who have returned from war and retired from the Army stay in Leesville, they say, because the quality of life is high and the cost of living is low, and because the town understands the military well.

Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Ron Semerena retired from the Army at Fort Polk in June. His active-duty Army career included three tours since 9/11 for a total of 42 months in theater. After two deployments to Baghdad and one to Afghanistan and more than 10 years at Fort Polk, he never has to wear fatigues again. He can grow out his mustache and beard.

He and his wife — with children grown and out of the house — will stay in the Leesville area.

Leesville is “the kind of community that I wanna live in,” said Semerena, who was born and raised in eastern Nebraska, where towns are even smaller. “What I need is a super Walmart and some mom-and-pop-type stores because I like supporting the small businesses,” he said.

“To retire here, it’s not a difficult choice, really,” Semerena said. “As long as you don’t need mega-theaters and shopping malls and things like that. To each their own, but it’s pretty easy, if you don’t need that. If you don’t need a nightlife. Streets roll up around 9 o’clock around here. Except for the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars).”

A town like Leesville honors veterans and service members because it remembers the reasons the country went to war in the first place.

“Since 9/11, the entire United States — if you remember 9/11 — it really brought a sense of unity to the United States as a whole,” Semerena said. “In some of the small communities, like this, that sense of unity is still there.”

Vernon Parish businesses, in turn, support military personnel like Semerena with discounts advertised by green-and-white stickers on their doors. The businesses and local residents recognize when a Fort Polk unit deploys — the lines aren’t as long at Home Depot, the wait is shorter at Fort Polk gates.

“It’ll be like a ghost town,” Camp said. “It does have an impact. And it is kind of scary when you come to work and they’re not all out there for (daily physical training) and you’re not hearing cadence. Even emotionally, it’s different.”

The 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division deployed more than 1,200 soldiers in July. But even before they had left, the people of Leesville already were planning for the day they come home.

The last time the 4-10 came home, the town gave them a ticker-tape parade, ending with a community dinner donated completely by local businesses.

“Now when they come back, we’re already talking about, OK what are we going to do for the guys when they come back?” Semerena said. “Are we going to do another parade? There will be some type of community event in 10 months when the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain comes back. I guarantee it.”

Area businesses reach out with both emotional and financial support to the soldiers and their families. People recognize how hard it can be for a young mother to stay at Fort Polk when her husband deploys — with a new baby, no family in the area and her spouse overseas. Last year, the Vernon Parish Chamber of Commerce reached out to more than 250 pregnant women and new mothers with a community baby shower, with door prizes, food and resources.

And that level of support and outreach is not uncommon in Leesville.

Retired Lt. Col. Ed Williams serves on the Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee and regularly hears business owners ask how they can help soldiers and their families.

“I literally can go out there, and if I can tie a fundraiser to the soldiers — here’s what we need the money for — I can get 50K in a night pretty easy,” Williams said. “And I don’t know that you can do that just everywhere, especially in a large city. And 50K is nothing to sneeze at; that’s a lot of money.”

Veterans who settle in the Leesville area after retirement usually find a way to give back to the military: Williams helps run a leadership training program on base, Acey-Roy commands an American Legion post, Semerena still wants to work with soldiers on a daily basis, and Rose tries to bond the town and the base.

This young crop of soldiers, the post-9/11 generation, constantly come up to Williams and shake his hand, thanking him for his service. He feels like it should be the other way around.

“These soldiers, they sign up knowing they’re going to combat,” he said. “It’s not if, it’s when are you going. You know when you sign that line, when you raise your hand, that you are going to go down-range.”

Rose recognizes the sacrifice post-9/11 soldiers signed up for, too.

“You can’t sit in one of those services, listen to stories about what they were doing trying to take care of their buddies and not be moved by it,” the mayor said. “There’s no nobler thing than to die trying to save someone else and that’s what they’re doing. And as a veteran, I can tell you when they’re in a firefight, they’re not thinking about the United States and protecting its strategic interests while they’re fighting. They’re thinking about that man or woman on either side of them and ‘I’m gonna take care of them, I’m not gonna let them down.’”

Caitlin Cruz was a Women & Philanthropy Fellow, and Rachel Leingang was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow this summer for News21.