Leaving. Fighting. Loving. Living.
While most of us watch the war on television, life in Fayetteville, North Carolina rages on. A four-day journey to America’s ground zero for the war at home Exclusive: Q&A with Mike Giglio
This guy is not blinking, and he is screaming.
And I mean screaming. Not just yelling to be heard over the loud music, but screaming at me so frantically that his voice cracks with every stressed syllable. He wants very badly to make sure I understand.
I work to meet his stare and let him know that I get it. It's obvious that I don't. The bartenders move in cautiously behind him, and I can feel the bouncer inching in from the back. But I keep my eyes locked on the soldier.
"I am a red, white, and blue f---ing patriot!" he screeches at me, jabbing his finger at my chest. The erratic cadence of his voice worries me, and he has the look of an angry dog at the end of its chain. He launches into a tirade about American values, working himself into an even greater frenzy. I just nod my head.
We're at a crowded bar in Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg, toward the end of a Saturday night. This is what can happen when you discuss military matters in such a situation.
The only thing keeping him from coming after me is "Jack," a six-foot-five, 250-pound former Special Forces operator with the broad chin and stark features of a GI Joe action figure. Jack and I have been drinking together all night, speeding from bar to bar in the slick convertible he recently recovered from his ex-wife. Jack is about forty, but he still looks to be in service shape. It actually hasn't been too many years since his last tour.
The three of us are crammed into a small corner of Paddy's Irish Pub on Raeford Road, a thoroughfare of the bars, restaurants, and strip malls that cater to the country's largest military base. Jack has his back straight against the wall, with the soldier and myself at either shoulder.
"It's okay, brother, he's on our side," he says in a slow, gentle voice, over and over.
The soldier keeps on screaming, spitting all over the place.
"I know the f---ing game! Republicans in charge, Democrats in charge, I die for f---ing both of them! They do their job, and I do my f---ing job! I put my life on the line for this country! I put my marriage on the line for this country! Because I f---ing love this country! Because I am a red, white, and f---ing blue American!"
The shouting went on for about ten minutes before the soldier was escorted out. The topics of his rant ranged from liberals and the ACLU to the Iraqi government and saying "winter break" instead of "Christmas break." But it was the marriage part that set him off. He had been listening to our conversation.
The latest divorce was Jack's third. He wasn't over it yet. He remembers how sad he and his wife had been before he left for his final deployment, that the still-fresh marriage was good then. Things weren't the same when he returned. He had become mentally and physically abusive. She became someone he no longer recognized. He caught her in bed with other men.
"You're over there, and you see little kids with their penises blown off. Your friends get their hands and feet blown off, get charred black. It does something to you," Jack had said just before the outburst.
"That guy has probably done four tours," the bartender told me after the soldier was gone. Bartenders are supposed to be amateur psychologists, but this one actually studied it at the local university. Marital worries are the number-one concern of soldiers heading overseas, he explained. Second on the list: getting shot at. His tone was matter-of-fact. "It's hard to adjust back to normal life."
Most people in this country have gone about their normal lives since the war started. What would the national temperature be like were it otherwise? During the bleak three-hour drive from Charlotte to Fayetteville, which mostly winds east along the stoplight-studded U.S. 74, an argument from a summer episode of MSNBC's Hardball played over in my head. A young editor from The Weekly Standard was contrasting a street skirmish involving a few Iraq war activists with footage he had seen of the massive clashes between protestors and government forces during the Vietnam War. He seemed amused by the difference in scale.
"Me to you—the draft," Chris Matthews, the show's host, shot back. "If you were vulnerable to the draft right now, you would have a much less frisky attitude about this war. . . I think it's the draft that explains why this has become a microcosm of a fight in the streets, rather than hundreds of thousands of hard hats going up against lefty college students. It does not look the same, because the stakes at home, unfortunately, are not being shared."
If there is a ground zero for the war at home, Fayetteville is it. Forty-eight thousand active-duty soldiers are stationed at Fort Bragg, the world's most populous military base. Not including the base, the town has a population of 174,000. When I ask Mayor Anthony Chavonne about the connection between those soldiers and the town, he estimates that 80 percent of them live with their families in the community, not on the base. They're in church and restaurants. Their kids are at school, on T-ball teams.
"We shop and play and pray together," he says.
Faded shopping centers, seedy nightclubs, and congested intersections fill the noisy streets around the base. There is a mall in one part of town surrounded by a maze of crossing roads packed with hotels and chain restaurants. Names like Arsenal Avenue, NATO Road, and General Lee Avenue are on signs throughout town. Bragg Boulevard, Fort Bragg Road, and All-American Freeway are main passages.
The fort is the town's biggest employer, Wal-Mart a distant second. Usually the economy is stable because of the military connection—most of the soldiers' income is disposable, payday is on the first and the fifteenth of the month regardless of national economic trends, and businesses in Fort Bragg's vicinity are based on that. By August, however, more than half of those troops were deployed, including the entire 82nd Airborne Division. And the length of their tours had been expanded by three months, to fifteen.
"Whoa. Yes," are the first words I get from the owner of a pawnshop on Yadkin Road when I walk in and ask if his business is feeling the effects. Desert boots and uniforms line his walls and racks, along with musical instruments and standard pawnshop fare. "It's not hard to figure out."
He doesn't want to sound selfish, noting the sacrifices the soldiers are making. "These are some of the finest guys in the world," he makes sure to say. Almost everyone does this when talking about their personal troubles. But then he says that 30 percent of his business is gone.
The situation is worse for those with more obvious connections to soldiers and their disposable funds: barber shops, tattoo parlors, bars, strip clubs. Most people mention the sudden availability of restaurant seating as an eerie indication that soldiers are shipping out fast. One young bartender yells at me for looking sad. "What's your problem?" I tell her I'm tired. She tells me her bar has been empty for months, and she has a kid at home.
Danny Melvin, a pierced, inked, and goateed tattoo artist on Yadkin Road, laughs right in my face.
"A lot," he says once he finishes laughing. "They emptied out this town in the last three months. You think of this town here, it has nothing to offer except service to the military. The whole town's set up to take Joe's money. What used to be the money days ain't the money days."
I feel bad walking into a barbershop near the base with a head full of hair and no plans for a cut. The two long rows of worn swivel chairs are empty; two barbers with white smocks and fresh fades are playing what seems to be an ongoing game of backgammon in the back. One had taught the other how to play not too long ago; the student now claims to have surpassed his teacher.
"Payday is not payday anymore," the teacher, a reserved middle-aged man with about twenty years on his opponent, says while contemplating a move. On Sundays, the shop had always been full of soldiers getting ready for their uniform check. A good barber could make a full week's pay in one day. Now, "it's hope-to-get-a-haircut day." He has taken a second job driving a school bus, and he says that morale is low. Always military terms in Fayetteville.
"I can tell you, it's pretty shitty," says Jamie Carter, a young manager and bartender at a strip club called Secrets, which is apparently lucky to remain in business. "Since August last year, that's when it got real bad. That's when my husband left."
Her husband of a year had recently been deployed again. "Mmm, it sucks," she says when I asked her about that. "But, I know he's over there for a reason. I'm proud of him for that."
For all the financial trouble and personal attachments, there doesn't seem to be much political debate around town, at least on the surface. People talk instead about dealing with the war, often looking forward to some point when a wave of troops or loved ones is set to return, or imagining how good things will be when it's finally over. Carter recently visited New York City and was surprised at all the talk about Iraq. "We know what's going on, but we don't like to talk about it," she says.
As the war drags on, though, it's getting harder for people to hang on. And the company line is getting harder to stomach.
Samantha Campbell, a striking blonde entertainer dressed in bright red lingerie on a slow afternoon at Secrets, finds a lot more soldiers are opening up to her these days. "The way people talk about things is different," she says. "This has always been a busy military town. I do have a lot of soldiers that come in here now and talk about how they hate their jobs."
It's not uncommon for younger soldiers to complain, she says. There are always those who don't like to be told what to do. But the older ones are usually more stoic. That has started to change, with the extended tours and soldiers on their second, third, and fourth tours of duty. More troops are questioning why they're spending all that time there.
"They love to fight for their country," Campbell says. "But there are just too many things on the ground itself."
There's no question who to talk to at the shoeshine shop in downtown Fayetteville. There are only four men in the dark and comfortable room. Two are stretched out on a bench near the door, and they squint their eyes at the sudden burst of light when I walk in. Another, wearing a suit, sits closer to the back, his shoes off. No one says a word.
Instead, they turn their collective gaze to the far left corner, where a sturdy old man in blue scrubs puts a slow, deliberate, and perfect shine onto a black loafer. A small American flag hangs vertically on the wall above his chair; a rack of dusty shoes sits at his side. The wall over the bench is filled with old sports clippings and articles on voting. A poster of Shaquille O'Neal reads: "People in America don't care about you. Don't be one of them." There is a picture of the man in the chair shaking hands with Bill Clinton, and a framed letter from George W. Bush.
Willie Banks and the Messengers fill the room with slow, sweet gospel music. The perfect soundtrack to the methodical strokes of the shine brush. One of the men on the bench jumps up to turn down the volume when Archie McMillan finally begins to speak.
"Well, young fella, go ahead and ask your questions."
It's been more than forty years now that he's been shining shoes in Fayetteville, interrupted by some time in the General Assembly in Raleigh. He's seen bad times before—during Operation Sagebrush in 1955, when the troops poured out of town to Texas. People had their blinds closed to avoid being seen by the debtors, and they were afraid to answer the door. Things are getting bad again.
"It really knocked it back," McMillan says in a voice that also complements the sound of his brush. "With all the GIs gone, it trickles it on down."
It's more than just financial worries making their way through town, though. McMillan asks whether I've seen soldiers on the street, or passing by in cars. He says you can identify them by haircut and build if they're not in uniform. I haven't come across any. He just lowers his eyes and continues to shine.
"And they're getting killed over there," the man in the suit says in a slow drawl, shaking his head. He won't tell me his name, because he's missing work. "Eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old."
"Yeah," McMillan says.
"There's something to think about."
"The realities of it."
"I think George Bush and Dick Cheney should be at every one of those funerals."
"Yeah. Meet the parents, and the loved ones."
It's silent for a while. "All you have to do is just wait it out," McMillan finally says. And we listen to the brush beating against the shoe.
"The president and his wife should be made to talk to those parents and loved ones," the man says. "I work in a funeral home. I know. George Bush ought to have his butt at every one. Legs and arms blown off. We've had eight to ten services for servicemen been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, all of them twenty-one and twenty-two." The conversation stops for a moment.
"Which, I know, when you go in the army, that's part of it."
"That's part of the job, I guess."
"You go over there and fight people, you don't even know who you're fighting. You're liable to shake someone's hand, and he's liable to detonate a bomb on you."
"Especially after the war, you're never going to…"
"I don't think a lot of people were against this war until it started affecting them here."
"You just imagine," McMillan says. He nods his head toward the door. "When this war's over, you're going to see the streets full of guys lost their mind. Like Vietnam."
A revitalization effort is underway in downtown Fayetteville, which is centered on a small traffic circle where four streets lined with brick buildings converge. But there are just a couple of blocks on Hay Street with enough open shops and restaurants to warrant a visit. The rows of windows lining the streets downtown are empty, mostly thanks to the outlying chain stores and strip malls that have had a similar effect throughout the country. The area doesn't cater much to the base anymore.
The town has worked to shed its "Fayette-nam" image, carried over from the days when the downtown district was lined with derelict buildings home to burlesque houses with names like The Seven Dwarves and Korean Lounge, and a stark divide existed between the locals and the military.
Buildings like the Airborne and Special Operations Museum now stand where some of the more infamous establishments once were. Mothers nurse their babies outside the broad brick library. There is a new wine shop, and a quaint bookstore with old military magazines and paintings of World War II bombers. A couple of picturesque churches sit along the street. Signs on shop windows discourage panhandling in the name of "real change, not spare change." A couple of bums shout at me in passing when I first arrive, and another tries to convert me to some kind of weird religion. There is free parking.
On the fourth Friday of every month, the shops downtown stay open late, bands play on the sidewalk, and the streets fill up. Women push strollers in groups, and people gather around a drum circle that forms on one corner. Some teenagers skateboard and shout insults at police once they're safely out of earshot. Others pass out fake million-dollar bills imprinted with instructions on seeking salvation. The local political parties are out in full force, distributing buttons and fliers for candidates who go by their first names. There are booths for different musical groups and churches, one for women in the workplace, and one taking a stand against littering.
I ask a girl handing out the fake money about the war and the town. "Well, my dad's in Afghanistan," she says. "It's difficult, but we deal with it." Then she trots away with her friends.
Down the street a little, at a new-looking bar called Huske Hardware House, a seasoned local in her mid-twenties deflects advances with the line, "My daddy is in the military."
"There seems to be a lot of that going around," one soldier says.
"My daddy kills people," the young woman responds.
The place is packed with soldiers fresh out of recent training sessions, and the tension seems a little high. I had been warned some of them can "get tribal." It's intimidating being in a crowded bar where everyone is trained to fight, and maybe looking for an excuse to let out some aggression. I grab the only open stool I see and order a drink, and try to keep my eyes to myself. There's a pretty low ratio of girls to guys, and groups of soldiers line up to take their shot.
"Don't worry, I'll just have some poor guy buy me drinks all night," I overhear someone boast to a friend. "Trust me, it won't be a problem," she snaps back at my dirty look.
I end up sitting outside on the patio with a group of Navy SEALS fresh off the first leg of a six-month medic program at Fort Bragg, their last stop before heading overseas. There are about ten of them, ranging in age from nineteen to twenty-two, most with crew cuts and muscle shirts. One had gotten married eight months ago and keeps his arm around his new wife. The rest are on the hunt. A number of them let me know they can't wait to go overseas and put their training to use.
"I would die for these guys," one pulls me aside to tell me.
"I can't wait to get out of this miserable town," another says.
But what about the people who stay?
The response of most families left behind during the first Gulf War was to move away. The wave of unphased deployments and unexpected departures crippled many businesses in one swift blow. Those who stayed in Fayetteville describe it as a ghost town then. It took a much sharper hit, though short lived by comparison. The people running things say the town and base learned their lesson.
A program called Fayetteville Cares was being set up during the summer, setting up a directory service for families in need. An auto service would help start a car free of charge, a yard company would fix lawnmowers, there would be free childcare. But even in full bloom, something like this seems unlikely to make much of a difference in a family's ultimate decision to stay or leave.
Many military families are young, with soldiers marrying in their late teens or early twenties. Most meet their spouses elsewhere, then bring them to Fayetteville.
A girl behind the counter at the coffee shop downtown had married and moved from Arizona two weeks earlier. She looks about twenty. Her husband is already overseas. She says she'll try to deal with it by staying active and playing sports, and she seems miserable. Things in Fayetteville are totally different from her home. Her career plans have been put on hold. She would never stay in town if she didn't have to. She is looking forward to her next trip to Wilmington.
Rebekah Sanderlin looks like an army wife from a movie: the hero pulls out her picture in the opening scene, she has dark hair, engaging eyes, and a warm smile, she's holding his kid, and you're already hoping he makes it out of this thing alive. Sanderlin keeps a blog on family life in the military for the local newspaper and has tried to help set up support networks for families split apart by deployment. Having friends around who understand what it's like being married to someone who gets shot at every day is what gets her through the deployments, and it's what keeps her around. She used to head back home to Tennessee when her husband was overseas, but now she has a hard time leaving town.
"It's absolutely critical," she says of her support network of other military wives. "The biggest problem with military families is you're constantly moving, and have to make new friends. And then you have a woman in a strange town in the most frightening time of her life."
She has what she calls a typical military marriage. Her wedding was on March 8, 2003. She moved to Fayetteville on March 12. The U.S. invaded Iraq six days later. On April 1, her husband was deployed.
"Yeah, they pretty much throw you right into the frying pan here," she says.
Sanderlin started dating her husband in 2002. A spree of murders took place in Fayetteville that summer, soldiers killing their wives after returning from Afghanistan. She didn't worry about her safety. But she did spend time calculating the cost of life as an army wife. She knew the stress it would entail. She had to decide if she was OK being with a man who might have to kill someone, if he hadn't already. Or might get killed himself.
Her family goes through a process to get ready for a deployment. Usually they know at least a couple of months out. A month or so beforehand she makes a list of things for him to fix before he leaves. He starts getting his uniform together, and big green bags get strewn throughout the living room. She puts together a folder of documents she would need if something were to happen. Then they start telling relatives. The last thing you want is a bunch of people in your house the day he's leaving.
"The day he leaves is horrible, that goes without saying."
I have to push her for that bit of emotion. Otherwise she lists off the aspects of her situation as if she were a soldier in uniform.
"The bottom line is he's gone," Sanderlin says.
She has lived four and a half years in Fayetteville. The hardest part is her husband's being away from their young son. Bo was two weeks old the last time Bobby left. She kept an enlarged photo of her husband pasted in front of his car seat. She put his ear to the phone. When Bobby came home, Bo was nine months old. "That was wild," she says. "He looked at Bobby, looked at the picture, then looked at Bobby, and smiled."
Bobby is in Afghanistan now, and Bo is three. This time he asks where his dad is. It's hard to explain. "For him, far away must be a place," Sanderlin says.
Soldiers now spend more time deployed than they do at home. Three more excruciating months on top of a year that was already next to impossible to bear. An extra quarter of a year with your spouse at home alone, or under fire in the Middle East.
"That's a lot longer than it looks on paper," Mayor Chavonne says. "That's a big deal psychologically."
The people in Fayetteville may not talk much about politics, but they certainly know what's going on. Nobody seriously expects things to turn around anytime soon. The bulk of Fort Bragg's forces are rapid deployment. The 82nd Airborne is said to be the nation's 911, ready to be anywhere in the world within twenty-four hours. The first responder to any national crisis. This is a time of national crisis.
"I'll be honest with you," Chavonne says. "We don't see the current conflict as being the end. We'd all appreciate a drawdown. The entire country would. That doesn't mean the country is not on the path of war."
"Just wait it out," goes the saying around town. It's nearing the end of a long, hot August, and they say the same thing about the weather. Almost too muggy to stand it, but never any rain. The brief and infrequent showers are just a tease. They hit another man's lawn in the neighborhood, if they even hit the neighborhood at all. All the grass is turning brown.
It's easy to complain about the weather to a passing stranger, especially one who wants to talk. There's not much to do about bad weather except complain, anyway. Tell him to stay out of the heat, maybe throw him a bottle of water. That's something everyone can understand.
When Jack and I were drunk and speeding from bar to bar with the top down and the streetlights shining off the spotless windshield, the breeze was perfect. It blew our hair back and made us feel sober and safe. We stretched out our legs, slid down into our seats, and took another turn at top speed. And then Jack felt like maybe I could get it. Among blurred images of disfigurement and infidelity, there is one of a photo overturned on a dresser. Jack stands alone in a strange room, somewhere in Fayetteville, while a sink runs in the background. He picks up the photo and stares with horror at his reflection in the glass. And he runs down the steps and out the door, and he shifts gears and guns it around the curve.
And drunk soldiers scream in bars, then leave in tears, trying to apologize and wanting to grab you by the throat. And all you have to do is just wait it out.
There is a small and rowdy biker bar on Bragg Boulevard called Legends. It's cool and dusky inside, the kind of place to sit and drink in the middle of a bright day, and sing or say nothing at all.
The back wall is covered with framed photos of fallen patrons. Jack told me not to leave town until I'd seen it. There's one of a young man in uniform, Scott D. Sanders, the first Airborne killed in Iraq. There's another of a man on a Harley, one of a man in his underwear. Some died of heart attacks or in motorcycle crashes. A lot died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Holly Whitley, the owner, came to town for a man years ago and tells me it's home now. She walks up and recounts the stories behind a few of the pictures. "That wall means a lot to a lot of people," she says. "We've put up seven this year. Some people have a hard time even looking at it."
She points to some of the recent ones as the Sunday-afternoon drinking crowd carries on to a Lynyrd Skynyrd track at the bar. "It was one right after the other. We knew when they started the war that it was going to be hard. You just gotta go with it. Get this shit behind us and over with."
Then she says a guy named Gary has signed for me, and I can stay and have a beer, and help myself to some tuna salad if I'm hungry. You have to be a member of the bar to drink, or have a member vouch for you.
Gary is the man with the gray beard drinking whiskey at the bar, wearing ripped jeans, boots, and a faded sleeveless shirt. I notice a few teeth missing from his grin when I take a seat beside him. He tells me some stories about his time in Vietnam, smiling at the memory of the plane ride home. Gary was raised in Fayetteville. His father and uncles had been in the military before him.
"It's still the same," he says. He lived in Jacksonville for a while, but missed it here, and came home a few years back. "They made changes downtown. But it's still the same."
Times are hard, and money is tight. But "everybody takes care of themself here." He has friends overseas, and he's waiting for them to get back. He finishes his drink and gets up to head home. That's going to be a good day.