Clarksville: War Doubts Surface in Army Town

Clarksville, Tenn., is about as military as a town can get. The 101st airborne division, the unit that spearheaded the invasion of Iraq, is based across the Kentucky border at Fort Campbell. But three years of war losses have some in the town saying it's time to bring the troops home.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's been almost three years since the Iraq War began. Early on the morning of March 20th, 2003 Baghdad time, President Bush gave a television address from the White House. The invasion was under way.

President BUSH W. BUSH: On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

One of the units deployed in those early days of the war was the Army's 101st Airborne Division. It is again involved now in the offensive on Samarra. Operation Swarmer, as it's known, is being followed especially closely in one Tennessee town, Clarksville, near Kentucky's Fort Campbell, headquarters for the 101st. When the war began, almost everyone in Clarksville supported it, but now in Clarksville NPR's Eric Weiner finds growing doubt.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Clarksville's connection to the Army sneaks up on you. First you notice the unusually large number of barber shops and tattoo parlors. Then you notice a lot of drivers backing into parking spaces, an old Army habit. Talk to people and it quickly becomes clear that everyone here, from the guy brewing the coffee at Panini's Café to the sales clerk at Mulligan's Fine Wines and Liquors to the reporter for the Leaf Chronicle, the local newspaper, is in the Army or used to be in the Army or has a brother in the Army over there in Iraq.

It's Working Women's Wednesday at the Front Page Deli, billed as a networking opportunity, but judging from the smoky, raucous atmosphere, also an opportunity to let off some steam.

Ms. PAT TABOR(ph) (Civilian Employee, Fort Campbell): It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of fun.

WEINER: That's Pat Tabor. She and her two friends, Lucy Pelletier(ph) and Linda Kreech(ph), are civilian employees at Fort Campbell, a few miles down the road in Kentucky. For them, the war in Iraq isn't something they merely watch on TV or read about in the paper.

Ms. TABOR: You know, we see the uploads with all the vehicles, all the people being deployed, and you know, all the trucks and trailers and people and see the flights leave. And we see them all come home, well, most of them come home.

WEINER: Some, of course, don't come home. In the past three years, 130 members of the 101st airborne division have been killed in Iraq. Now, the Army division is spearheading the air assault on Samarra, the biggest since the war began in 2003.

Unidentified Man #1: The U.S. forces on behalf of the Iraqi forces are getting better intelligence by the month.

WEINER: Down the road at Panini's Café, the TV is always tuned to the news. In between sips of coffee, people glance at the screen. Should there be casualties, chances are it won't be a stranger.

Mr. TONY LOPEZ(ph) (Former Marine): You know, when we hear just one, we always want to know who it was, their name, and did we know them.

WEINER: That's Tony Lopez, a former Marine, though you'd never know judging by his unruly hair and sizeable paunch. A friend of his was killed in Iraq, but Lopez says the U.S. has no choice but to stay.

Mr. LOPEZ: I think they need to run the course, because if we leave right now it's just going to leave a big vacuum and it will probably be a lot worse than it was. I think it would create a whole hornet's nest.

WEINER: His co-worker, Sarah Williams, is shaking her head. She was an early supporter of the war, but not anymore.

Ms. SARAH WILLIAMS (Coworker): Then, you know, the war just started and nobody really knew what it was all about at first. Now we all know what it's about. It's about gas mainly, Bush going over there and taking it over. And I think they've done what they need to do, and I think they should come back.

WEINER: That's a sentiment you hear a lot these days in Clarksville. Yes, we support the troops 100 percent, but what exactly are they fighting for?

Mr. Steven Holyfield(ph) (Employee, Frank's Hamburgers and Fries): I don't think it was worth it. I don't.

WEINER: Steven Holyfield flips burgers at Frank's Hamburgers and Fries, a greasy spoon diner that looks like it hasn't changed one iota since 1954.

Mr. HOLYFIELD: To me, we've not accomplished anything there. I mean, you can't make a country a democracy that is a dictatorship and has always been a dictatorship. They don't have the same beliefs. They don't worship the same people. They don't eat pork. I mean, that tells you something there!

WEINER: Down the hill from Frank's, I found Mary Jo Dozier(ph), a rarity in Clarksville. At 77 years old, she's old enough to remember the town before Fort Campbell. She volunteers that she voted for President Bush, doesn't trust Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and feels it's time for at least some of the troops to come home.

Ms. MARY JO DOZIER (Resident, Clarksville): I know they can't take them all out at once, but instead of sending men over, like I heard this morning on the news, they're sending more troops, I think they ought to be trying to get them out. We've lost too many fine young men to put up for something like those people over there. I think they're nutty and fruitcakes.

WEINER: Even those residents of Clarksville who support the war, and there's still plenty who do, are ambivalent.

Mr. RAY BALTHORPE(ph) (Resident, Clarksville): Well, we all want them to get out, but I think they've started something and they do need to finish.

WEINER: Ray Balthorpe has lived in Clarksville for most of his 58 years.

Mr. BALTHORPE: I just feel like it is the right thing that we are doing and we sure don't want to become a nation that starts something and then pulls out, a nation that never finishes anything, a nation that there people really want freedom and we leave them dangling.

WEINER: Across town at Mugsy's Coffee Shop, a former soldier is curled up on an overstuffed chair with his laptop. He did three tours of duty in Iraq, but recently decided to get out of the Army. He lost one friend to an IED and the reenlistment bonus the Army was offering wasn't enough. His name is Vincent.

He's still in the Army Reserves, so he didn't want to use his last name. Soldiers, even reserve soldiers, aren't supposed to talk to the media without permission. In a few words, Vincent sums up the dilemma facing Clarksville and the nation.

VINCENT (Former Army Soldier): That's a lose-lose situation. If you pull out you lose. If you stay you lose. If you pull out, all the soldiers that died, all the soldiers that were injured and everything, I mean, what did they die for? I mean, why did that soldier just lose his leg?

WEINER: But stay in Iraq, says Vincent, and surely more soldiers will die and surely Clarksville will lose another of it's own.

Eric Weiner, NPR News, Clarksville, Tennessee.

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