Military Town Unsure About Iraq War

North Carolina's Fort Bragg was home to the general who started the public criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by retired officers. People living around the base have their doubts about the Iraq war. But they also have a strong commitment to the military.

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For his part, the defense secretary says the generals calling for his resignation are isolated voices. It's hard to measure this in the military because active duty troops can be prosecuted for using "contemptuous words" about their civilian leaders.

NPR Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren went to one of the nation's quintessential military towns, Fayetteville, North Carolina, to ask retired service members what they think. And he found these lower-ranking retirees surprisingly outspoken on the subject of speaking out.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Many towns have been called the buckle on the Bible Belt. Fayetteville, North Carolina is the holster--a bastion of red state conservatism, religious devotion, and so many current and former service members, that locals call it Fayettenam.

The town's military history goes back to 1783, when it was named after the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolution. Yet even here, in the home of Fort Bragg, support for the war in Iraq is eroding. The shift is reflected in polls showing that more than half of North Carolina residents now oppose the war.

Retired Command Sergeant Major Bob Maya(ph) sips a beer from a Special Forces mug at the horseshoe-shaped bar at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9103.

Command Sgt. Maj. BOB MAYA (Command Sergeant Major, United States Army, Retired): I think we had a good idea to begin with, we just didn't carry it out right. Now, I have a young daughter; she's working on five and a half years. I don't want to see her come home in a body bag.

HENDREN: Across the bar is retired Airman Dale Muner(ph), who served two tours in Vietnam.

Airman DALE MUNER (Airman, United States Air Force, Retired): Just costing too many damn lives, the way things are going. It was a good thing when it started, but I think it's escalated into something more than what we expected it to. And I think they had optimism of everything was gonna be fine and dandy, but it never works out that way.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

HENDREN: Downtown Fayetteville, where freight trains roll past either side of City Hall, is about to absorb Fort Bragg in a deal that will raise the town's population from 176,000 to more than 200,000. Elsewhere in the country, the shift and sentiment against the war has been a seismic event. Here in Fayetteville, the teacups are beginning to rattle.

Henry Cunningham is military editor of the Fayetteville Observer.

Mr. HENRY CUNNINGHAM (Military Editor, Fayetteville Observer): It is a rare occasion, wherever stop at a stoplight, and did not see a Bush-Cheney sticker. So, yes, it is a very conservative and very Republican. It seems like, just ever so subtly, Democrats are starting to come out of the woodwork, even in the military. I think there is, you know, maybe somewhat of a shift.

HENDREN: Gen. Jack Keane knows Fayetteville. The retired vice chief of staff of the Army, once commanded the post.

General JACK KEANE (Retired, Vice Chief of Staff, Army): I think a military community that surrounds a military base is very much a part of America. The fact that there are mixed views about the war is reflective of the much larger general population. I mean, we are in our fourth year. It is probably some genuine skepticism out there that's reflective of the larger feelings in the country.

(Soundbite of tattoo process)

HENDREN: On their way in and out of Iraq, many soldiers make a lifelong commitment--to their brigade, or to a girl--at the Extreme Addiction Tattoo Shop.

Mr. NIKOLAI ASTRAH(ph) (Tattoo Artist, Extreme Addiction Tattoo Shop): Oh, yeah. There's a lot of those. And a lot of names, you know. A lot of mistakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ASTRAH: Tattoos are forever, but love isn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HENDREN: Nikolai Astrah is a soldier's son and a tattoo artist, who says the multiple yearlong tours of the war have taken their toll on his clientele.

Mr. ASTRAH: Yeah, a lot of times we're kind of like psychiatrists. I hear people saying they can't wait to go. And then there're some people that say, well, you know, I don't want to go. They'd just rather stay home with their family. A lot of families being split up for a while.

HENDREN: Polls show that even in the military, blacks are more anti-war than whites. The Fayetteville Observer found that two out of three whites here say that the war was worth the cost, just one in five black residents agrees. The gap is apparent historically black VFW Post 6018, where Korean and Vietnam War vet B.J. Middleton plays pinochle.

Mr. B.J. MIDDLETON (War Veteran): Is it really necessary to have that many people killed and that many people injured? What did Iraq do to us? It's just a mass amount of human life and limbs that are being lost. I feel as though it's unnecessary.

HENDREN: Many, perhaps most Fayetteville residents, still support the war. At the Retired Military Association, where pictures of Jane Fonda serve as targets in the urinals, Chuck Schoffe(ph) says retired generals should criticize Rumsfeld in private.

Mr. CHUCK SCHOFFE (War Veteran): They're feeding these terrorists, because every time they say something bad about our country, about our president, about Mr. Rumsfeld, or another soldiering, they're giving them bullets to use against us. Ol' bin Laden sitting over there eating goat cheese, just having a ball right now, loving this.

HENDREN: But other vets, like Command Sgt. Maj. Bob Maya, back at the VFW Post, say the stakes are too high for retirees, who know Rumsfeld first-hand, to remain quiet.

Command Sgt. Maj. MAYA: And I think he should resign. I think we went in that war with too few troops. You can win the battle and conquer ground, but somebody has to hold that ground. I think the generals have a valid complaint.

HENDREN: This summer, the 82nd Airborne's Third Brigade leaves Fort Bragg for its second tour in Iraq.

John Hendren, NPR News.

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