PAIN ON MAIN STREET

To the rest of the world, Matthew Sandri's death in Fallujah looked like just another statistic from the war in Iraq. A 24-year-old Army medic, Specialist Sandri was killed in a rocket attack on a staging area far from the front lines in March. But back home in rural Pennsylvania, Sandri was far more than a name and a rank. When it came time to hold a memorial service, there was only one place big enough in the small town of Shamokin: the high-school gym. So many arrived to pay their respects that officials asked police and firefighters from neighboring towns to help control the traffic and crowds. Two months later Shamokin (population: 7,800) was grieving once more. Robert Scheetz, a 31-year-old Special Forces captain, died when a Humvee exploded at his campsite in Iraq. "We watched these children grow up," said Mayor James Yurick Jr. "Sandri lived across the street from city hall. These deaths have been devastating to the community."

The deaths have also raised sharp questions about the need for troops to stay in Iraq and the priorities of the leaders who keep them there. "A lot of people from this community died in World War II, but people didn't think that was unjustified," says Shamokin School Superintendent Ned Sodrick. "But what's the reason this time? Just to make Iraq a democracy? If you look at the paper this week, you'll see they have a new poll that says that Kerry is gaining in the state--and I think this is the reason why."

Like other rural towns across the nation, Shamokin is home to many military families, bearing more than its fair share of the fallen. According to an analysis of Pentagon casualty figures collected this spring, almost 44 percent of the servicemen and -women killed in Iraq came from towns with populations under 20,000. These clusters of fallen heroes are changing the dynamic of the presidential campaign, as Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush sweat every county in battleground states like Pennsylvania.

For the Kerry campaign, the dissent among military families offers a rare political opening in rural areas--one the Kerry operation hopes to exploit with the senator's record as a decorated war hero. Kerry's aides say they have been taken aback by the strength of feeling about the war. "In some of those towns, there's a particular respect for the fact that John Kerry knows what it's like to be on the other side of a gun in a war," says Kerry spokesman David Wade, pointing to a theme that featured prominently in Kerry's acceptance speech in Boston. "For these people, it isn't a game or some neoconservative's theory. It's very real."

But Bush, who carried the military vote handily in 2000, is confident that the troops--and their small-town parents--will follow their commander in chief. In his retooled stump speech last week, Bush shifted his attack on one of his favorite targets--Kerry's vote against the $87 billion package for reconstruction and troops in Iraq. Where he used to cite the vote as evidence of Kerry's flip-flopping, Bush now says the vote shows his opponent does not stand by the troops. "He said, 'The whole thing is a complicated matter'," Bush recounted in Grand Rapids, Mich., as he arched his eyebrows. "There's nothing 'complicated' about supporting our troops in combat."

Reaching rural voters may be critical for the campaigns, but it's by no means easy. Voters are shaping their views inside their own communities, without the help of big-city newspapers or statewide TV ads. In West Virginia, a state of small towns that Al Gore lost in 2000, the families have suffered only a handful of fatalities in Iraq. Yet by word of mouth or by e-mail, the criticism and concerns of the grunts in Iraq are gaining widespread circulation. Jack Yeager, a retired brigadier general who voted for Bush four years ago, is now working for the Kerry campaign from his farm close to Jessica Lynch's home in Wirt County. "We have a big family-support system here," says Yeager, "and during Desert Storm, no one in these groups ever questioned what was going on. But now we're hearing ladies from those groups coming out and saying, 'We just want our guys to come home'." Robert Rupp, a political-science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, quotes an e-mail from a young Republican deployed in Iraq, who complains of mistreatment. "It's getting good conservative kids complaining to good conservative parents," he says.

In Shamokin, in a county that has voted Republican for every president since JFK, voters are increasingly conflicted. Hallways in the town's one elementary school are lined with photographs of some 50 citizens currently serving in the military. Each class adopts a soldier and corresponds regularly. News of Sandri's death came just after he wrote to his adopted school friends to say he was on his way home. For the families themselves, the raw feelings of grief and loss are bound together with a powerful sense of patriotism. Bob Scheetz, Robert's father, says he's a "staunch Republican" and plans to vote for Bush. His wife, Joyce, says she remains undecided, but is just as blunt on the other side. "I just think everything I hear from the government is lies, lies, lies," she says. Whatever the outcome in November's election, the town's war dead will be remembered long after the 2004 campaign. In downtown Shamokin, there are three memorials: one to the fallen of the Spanish-American War, another to the Civil War dead and one that lists the name of every citizen who was killed in war since the 1860s. At the end are two recent additions, Matthew Sandri and Robert Scheetz, and a blank space for more names that nobody wants to see filled.

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