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THE NATION

Call for Troops' Removal Reverberates at Home

Western Pennsylvania constituents react with spirit but are divided on a congressman's appeal.

November 19, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Situated at the junction of the Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers, Johnstown is best known for the Great Flood of 1889, in which a 35-foot wall of water roared into town and killed more than 2,000 residents in 10 minutes.

But this week, the town that boasts "The Flood's Over" in its promotional literature has a new distinction: It is the hometown of a hawkish congressman who is saying no to the Iraq war.

Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha -- a Marine veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars -- on Thursday issued a dramatic call for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. And on Friday, in interviews with about two dozen of his Johnstown constituents, reaction was vigorous -- much of it approving.

"We should never have been in there to begin with," said Leo Ratchford, a white-haired retired steel worker walking down Main Street. "Those are religious factions fighting each other. Whoever's the most vicious is going to win and take over the country."

In front of the U.S. Post Office near Johnstown's Central Park, Lynda Saintz bundled up against the 30-degree weather. "My son's going to be deployed in Afghanistan," said the 49-year-old housewife. "I'm against the war in Iraq. I'm against the war in Afghanistan. I'm scared because of my son. I'm scared because of every mother's son."

Not everyone hailed the congressman. On the website of the local Tribune-Democrat newspaper, www.tribune-democrat.com, many readers criticized Murtha.

And among those interviewed, several were angry at Murtha for what they viewed as a betrayal of U.S. troops and the president.

"We have to finish the job," said Jim Belle, 48, a regular at Scott's by the Dam, a bar reminiscent of TV's "Cheers."

"You don't undermine the president at a time of war," he added. "It's bad for the troops."

But Cindy McLachlan, wife of the bar's owner, was in Murtha's corner. "Bring them home," she said. "It's time."

Murtha may have tapped into a well of public discontent in this community of 80,000. But it is not the type of antiwar sentiment one might hear at a rally organized by MoveOn.org, the online liberal advocacy group.

The weariness voiced about the war here sounds more rueful, expressing a sense that America once again had gone to war to do good only to be rebuffed by the intransigence of its enemies.

"When we first went in, I can't say I was against it," said Mary Cunningham, a Democrat who has lived in Johnstown for 22 years and swims with other seniors every morning. "At this point, we've got into another Vietnam." As for Murtha, she said: "He's finally being honest. He speaks from his heart. He has experience. He speaks for me."

Murtha, 73, grew up in this part of western Pennsylvania, delivering newspapers and working at a gas station during high school. He won his House seat in 1974 and has been reelected handily since then.

Steel production was once the heart of Johnstown's economy. But the mills -- long since silenced by economic change -- await transformation into what city officials hope will be a surge of health research and high-technology concerns.

A new conference center can seat 1,000 for dinner, the local sports stadium has undergone an $8-million renovation and, thanks to Murtha, some federal agencies -- such as the National Drug Intelligence Center -- have headquarters here.

As in many areas of Pennsylvania, the community's population has been shrinking, as young people leave to find jobs elsewhere. In the 2000 census, Pennsylvania lost two congressional seats, and Murtha was thrown into a Democratic primary with another congressman, Rep. Frank Mascara. Murtha won easily.

"A group of us Republicans changed registration to vote for him and then switched right back," said Arlene Johns, a regional editor at the Tribune-Democrat. "That's how much respect he has."

Called "an American Legion kind of Democrat," Murtha supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991 but opposed intervention in Bosnia and deployment in Somalia.

At the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, he questioned whether troops had the proper equipment and called for the reinstatement of the draft. As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Murtha rankled Republicans during last year's presidential election when he said the Pentagon had to change direction in Iraq or the war would be "unwinnable."

His call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a process he said could take about six months, sparked Republican retribution Friday. GOP leaders forced a vote on a resolution that expressed "the sense of the House ... that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately," knowing it would be overwhelmingly defeated. The resolution lost by a vote of 403 to 3.

But the rebuff aimed at Murtha is not likely to sting here.

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