Fort Lewis Soldiers, Community React to Iraq Plan

In the military community of Fort Lewis, Wash., there appears to be little interest in, or support for, President Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Throughout this morning we've been telling you about President Bush's plan to send about 20,000 more troops to Iraq. We've learned this morning that the U.S. will also be sending more reconstruction teams to try to improve Iraq's economy. Now, the president's plan is of special interest to American veterans who maybe returning to Iraq.

NPR's Martin Kaste found some of them near Fort Lewis in Washington State.

MARTIN KASTE: There's probably no better place to find once and future Iraq veterans than at Galloping Gerties Bar & Grill.

(Soundbite of music)

Gerties is just right across from the National Guard's Camp Murray and the Army's Fort Lewis. Almost everybody in the bar either knows someone serving in Iraq or is going there soon himself. But as President Bush appears on the big screen, the six o'clock happy hour crowd barely glances up.

(Soundbite of President Bush's speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi army and national police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts.

GONYEA: The bartender, Michelle Stolks(ph), is married to a soldier. But she hardly looks at the TV either.

Ms. MICHELLE STOLKS (Bartender): To me, personally, has the same stuff over and over, and it changes so much anyway. So why watch?

GONYEA: That doesn't mean Stolks is oblivious to Bush's plan for Iraq. In fact, most people in the bar have already heard about the surge in troop levels. Stolks says she just doesn't think it'll do any good.

Ms. STOLKS: I don't think that would solve anything, but more heartache and more chaos.

GONYEA: Down the street from Gerties, there's Bell's Barbershop. It's just one of a dozen or so barbershops along this strip. They do a brisk business, keeping servicemen haircuts regulation trim. Several soldiers are here now, and they're paying more attention to the speech, but it's not friendly attention.

(Soundbite of Bush speech)

President BUSH: And one message came through loud and clear: Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States.

Unidentified Man #1: Disaster for you.

GONYEA: These soldiers are part of the Stryker Brigade based at Fort Lewis. They're units have seen heavy combat in Iraq and they're heading back there in May, or maybe April. They say they just found out they're leaving earlier because of the president's plan.

They're angry, but they refuse to give interviews saying they have standing orders not to talk to the media about the war. Sitting in the barber's chair, Michael Wallace(ph) says he's not military, but his sister's in the army, and she has already spent a year in Iraq. He's not happy with the president's plan either.

Mr. MICHAEL WALLACE (Brother of a Female Soldier): I think the best thing to have been done would have been to - for him to pullout after realizing, you know, the soldiers were not capable of being successful in the atmosphere in Iraq.

GONYEA: Are you worried about your sister having to go back because of something like this?

Mr. WALLACE: I'm not necessarily, per se, worried about her having go back. I mean, because anyone understands, you enlist for the military, that's what you enlist to, you know, to do. But I think that it's unnecessary, you know. I think it's really unnecessary.

GONYEA: Finally, one soldier who's been sitting quietly, waiting for his haircut, says he will go on the record.

Specialist MATTHEW HAMMER (U.S. Army): I don't want to die over there. I don't think it's worth it.

GONYEA: Specialist Matthew Hammer is out of uniform as he kneads his hands nervously as he talks.

Specialist HAMMER: Instead, I just had a newborn baby five days ago. And I got three other friends who are having kids. And one's having one in March and we're leaving in February. One's having one in June. So - and we all three just got married to our wives like a couple of months ago. And we just found out we're leaving to go to Iraq again. We're having babies and stuff. Now we have to move our families back to New York and stuff like that. It's a big mess.

GONYEA: And that seems to be the consensus, at least around here. This is the neighborhood with the payday loan shops and the coin-op laundry mats, in other words, the enlisted men's neighborhood. There's undoubtedly a wider array of opinions about the president's plan in the military as a whole. But on this street, the mood ranges from indifference to resignation.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Dupont, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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