Sons of Conover Made Iraq Sacrifices as Small Towns Hit Hardest

Benny Gray Cockerham III
Benny Gray Cockerham III poses for a photograph at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on July 17, 2005. Photographer: Ben Cockerham via Bloomberg

This month, as the last U.S. combat forces left Iraq, the holiday parade in Hickory, North Carolina, featured a first: marchers carrying the names of all the state’s troops who died in that war and in Afghanistan.

“The older men stood and saluted; some people cried,” said Mike Beasley, an ex-Marine who organized the display through his church. “It opened a lot of people up to what had happened.”

Places like Hickory, with a population of 40,010, bore much of the burden of Iraq war casualties. Roughly half of those who died came from towns with fewer than 50,000 people, and of those, about a quarter were from places with less than 10,000, a Bloomberg analysis of U.S. Census figures suggests.

The all-volunteer military gets many front-line troops from rural areas, where there’s a culture of patriotism, a tradition of service and often limited economic opportunities, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in defense policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Infantry forces, which take the brunt of a lot of the casualties, do tend to draw predominantly from these regions,” O’Hanlon said.

The losses hit hard in Hickory’s neighboring town of Conover, where the economy struggled for years before the recession hit the rest of America. The town of 8,165 people gave up two of its sons to the war.

Conover’s Fallen

Benny Gray Cockerham III, a high school soccer standout who attended college before joining the Marines, won two Purple Hearts in Iraq before being killed during his second tour by a roadside bomb near Al Amariyah on Oct. 21, 2005. The blast threw the 21-year-old corporal into a canal, which had to be drained so his body could be found about a week later, relatives said.

Jason “Jay” Huffman, a 23-year-old Army corporal from Conover who played saxophone in the high school marching band and ran cross country, was killed by a roadside bomb in Hawijah, Iraq, on Dec. 6, 2006. During almost nine years of conflict, three other residents of surrounding Catawba County were killed.

The departure of combat troops from Iraq brought holiday reunions with families in western North Carolina where local economies crumbled over the course of the war.

The Hickory metropolitan area, which includes Catawba County, has lost almost 26,000 manufacturing jobs -- a 42 percent decline -- since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, according to U.S. Labor Department data. Employment in furniture manufacturing, a mainstay of the region, plunged 49 percent. The number of textile mill workers dropped 57 percent.

‘So Long’

In Conover, where “Merry Christmas” banners hang across downtown streets lined with two- and three-story storefronts, Adam Campbell, 27, said young adults whose classmates may have served in Iraq became disillusioned as the conflict dragged on.

“There was a big hype at the time -- it was, ‘here we go, we’re going to take care of it and it’s going to last 90 days,’” said Campbell, an engineer who commutes 90 minutes to a job in Charlotte. “It just went on so long.”

Campbell’s mother, Penny Corpening, 53, owns Conover Hardware and said that, for many, economic troubles came to overshadow concerns about the war.

“You are worried about the economy, about keeping the business afloat,” she said. “Are we ever going to get jobs back, so that my son can come home to work? You have to ask whether it was worth it.”

Plant Closings

Unemployment in Catawba County peaked at 15.2 percent in early 2010 and was 11.6 percent in October. More than 200 jobs were lost when Corning Cable Systems, a Corning Inc. unit that makes fiber-optic cables, closed a Hickory assembly plant in 2009, according to the Catawba County Economic Development Corp. A Clayton Marcus Co. furniture plant closing in 2008 eliminated 230 positions, following more than 300 job cuts in 2007 at a Progressive Furniture Inc. plant.

“We’ve been in a downward spiral for a decade, for the entirety of the Iraq war,” Conover City Manager Donald Duncan said.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 10 percent in November, compared to 8.6 percent nationwide.

Stressing that there’s no comparison between wartime military service and economic struggles, Conover Mayor Lee Moritz said people in his town “have our own rebuilding that we’re having to do.”

Swing State

While North Carolina will be a swing state in next year’s election -- President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won there in 2008 by about 14,000 of 4.3 million ballots cast -- Catawba County has been solid Republican territory. The 2008 Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, got 62 percent of the county’s vote. In a Senate race last year, Republican incumbent Richard Burr was favored by 67 percent of county voters.

Patriotism runs deep around Conover, said Moritz, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, who said Cockerham and Huffman “are heroes here.”

Cockerham, born on the base at Camp Pendleton, California, may have been destined to follow his father into the Marine Corps.

“The hardest thing when he was growing up was convincing him that just because you wear camouflage pants, it doesn’t make you daddy,” said his father, Ben Cockerham, who owns a small business that provides and maintains heavy construction equipment.

‘All Gung Ho’

“He was all gung-ho that first tour -- then he saw some things,” Cockerham said during an interview at a fast-food restaurant near Conover. “He went from being 20 thinking like he was 18, to 20 thinking like he was 50, in the course of seven months.”

At the younger Cockerham’s alma mater, St. Stephens High School, a memorial soccer game is held in his honor.

“He was the first person we know that had been killed there,” said the school’s principal, DeAnna Taylor. “It was just devastating.”

Taylor said the war’s goals were worth fighting for, though she worries that changes in Iraq won’t last. “It’s kind of a melancholy feeling,” she said.

At Bunker Hill High School, where Huffman graduated, his former principal, Jeffrey Taylor, says he plans to have Huffman’s name added to a memorial wall honoring students who have died.

“He would have been one of those students you look back on in 10 years and are amazed at how he’s done,” said Taylor. “He was the silent majority: hardworking, honest, a down-to-earth kid.”

Quiet End

Cockerham’s father said the war ended quietly because many people stopped paying attention and aren’t aware of the sacrifices others made.

“It’s not that people don’t care,” he said. “It’s that they don’t know, and they don’t want to know. They want somebody to take care of them, and they don’t want to know what it takes.”

Cockerham paused to compose himself as he recalled his experience boarding a flight to bring his son’s casket home.

“This luggage is moved out of the way and put back on,” he said. “And everybody is getting on the plane, walking by the casket. And they’ve got their earphones on, talking on the phone, while all this is going on in front of them.”

The plane held until a Marine escort signed off.

“You could hear people bitching, saying ‘Let’s go,’ and ’What are we waiting for?’”