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Across U.S., war means jobs
Defense spending pumps new life into small townsBy Jonathan Weisman
Updated: 12:04 a.m. ET May  11, 2004

FAIRFIELD, Ohio - Along a quiet strip of gray corrugated metal buildings, across the street from a La-Z-Boy distribution center, Gary Allen and his ever-expanding crew are running one of the most urgent operations of the Iraq war.

Around the clock, seven days a week, O'Gara Hess & Eisenhardt churns out heavily armored Humvees, designed for the guerrilla combat and roadside bombs bedeviling U.S. troops. Last August, a back-lot warehouse held excess inventory. Now, after a $1.5 million investment, 30 new workers on two shifts produce 500 sets of three-inch-thick bulletproof glass a week. As many as 10,000 sets are on back order.

In November, the company snapped up a 40,000-square-foot building down the road, moved its entire commercial armoring operation there and in three days, with an additional $1.5 million, it doubled the Humvee operation.

In six months, employment has more than tripled, to over 600, and 250 more people in this part of southwestern Ohio work as direct suppliers. Production manager Ronnie Carson figured he interviews 15 job applicants every day and hires 10 to 12 of them. Just yesterday, the company's parent corporation, Armor Holdings Inc., announced it received an additional $16.6 million from the Army to ramp up production yet again. The clocks setting the pace on the assembly line were reset, from one vehicle every hour and a half to one every hour and 15 minutes.

"For us, the economy is great," said Allen, senior vice president and general manager of Armor Holdings Inc.'s Mobile Security Division. "It's a sad situation, but . . . " His voice trailed off, then he added, "I don't think anyone here is thinking about it that way."

In this corner of a critical presidential-election battleground state, the economy is surging with the urgency of a boom. But it wasn't President Bush's tax cuts, Federal Reserve interest rate policies or even a general economic turnaround that did the trick. It was war.

The frenetic activity is repeated all over the country. New kilns in California bake ceramic body-armor plates. Apparel plants in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida and Puerto Rico struggle to keep up with uniform orders. Once-idle textile mills in South Carolina spin rugged camouflage fabric. Army depots operate 24/7 to repair and rebuild the wreckage of war in time to ship it back with the next troop deployment.