War Worries: Postcard From Paris

On tonight's CBS Evening News, Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports on a small Illinois town where the war in Iraq has left some deep scars.
Paris, Illinois may have an unlikely name, but everything else about the town of 9,000 -- from the quaint courthouse in the town square to the farmlands all around -- is pure Midwest Americana. That includes the call to serve in our nation's military. Paris is home to the 1544, a National Guard transportation unit. For years the Guard has been a way for young people to serve their country and pay for a college education.

So when the unit got deployed in late 2003, most folks here in Paris assumed Guard members would "do their year" and come home. But tragedy struck almost immediately. 44 year old Ivory Phipps was killed by a mortar the very day the unit arrived in Iraq. Former Guardsman Aaron Wernz remembers Phipp's death served as "a real wake-up call." The unit realized then and there "it was going to be a long year."

Before the group made it home, four more soldiers had died, including 26-year-old Shawna Morrison. Three years later her mother Cindy Morrison is still waiting for time to heal her hurt. She says she still wakes up and thinks about Shawna as if she's alive. She and Shawna's dad Rick understand why many Americans want our soldiers home. Both say they hate for any other American "children" to die, but they also feel we, as a country, "are stuck." That leaving Iraq now might undermine the sacrifice made by so many families.

The town's mayor, Craig Smith, isn't so conflicted. He said many people in Paris who supported the war now only support the troops. That sentiment has done "a 180" in the last year. I spoke with Smith at a local café packed with breakfast-goers who echoed his feelings. Families without any ties to the military were vocal about their desire to get the troops home. Townspeople with sons or daughters serving still feel the U.S. is doing the right thing. More than once I heard people there express the idea that the war was keeping terrorism at bay.

At one time the football coach at Paris High School had five former players in Iraq. Today the principal said recruiters still come by the school and he doesn't see that the deaths have much diminished the enlistment rate. The Guard is still seen as a good way to pay for an education.

If you happen to find yourself in Paris, which isn't easy, I would suggest a visit to the old war memorial on the town square. As in many American cities the memorial has a place of prominence and reading so many names from a community so small brought me close to tears. Now folks in Paris are collecting donations to build a new memorial, specifically for soldiers lost in Iraq. They plan to rename Kiwanis Park War Memorial Park.

Shawna's mom, Cindy, says it will 'validate' her daughter, but it will also be an eternal reminder of one town's tremendous sacrifice.