War-weary residents near Norfolk Naval Station quietly opposed to military action in Syria


Rodney McKeithan, owner of Custom Kutz barbershop in Norfolk, gives sailor David Rollins a haircut at his shop outside the Norfolk Naval Station. McKeithan, a retired Navy ship serviceman, says he opposes military strikes against Syria. (Scott Neville/For The Washington Post)
September 13, 2013

The sailors and Marines who frequent Rodney McKeithan’s barbershop are so exhausted that they often fall asleep in the chair while he shears their close crops even shorter.

“They’re drained when they come in,” said McKeithan, 45, a retired Navy ship serviceman who operates three Custom Kutz barbershops near Naval Station Norfolk. “They talk all the time about how tired they are.”

McKeithan, who ended 20 years of Navy service in 2007 and keeps a photo of himself in sailor whites beside his barber chair, opposes military strikes against Syria. Most of his clients do, too, he said, after enduring extended cruises up to 10 months, truncated holidays and exhausting 6-day weeks preparing for the next cruise.

“My heart goes out to the people dying over there,” he said of the Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire. “But we’ve got to look out for our guys. We’re stretched here.”

Opposition to military action against Syria appears to be even stronger in the Hampton Roads area, home to the nation’s largest naval base, than in the country at large.

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National polls show six in 10 Americans are against it. When U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell (R), whose district includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach, held a call-in town hall on the issue Monday, 85 percent of 247 callers who answered a quick poll voted against missile strikes in Syria in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons in its civil war. Just 6 percent favored it. Local politicians say they hear similar levels of opposition from their constituents.

In part, that opposition reflects the toll that more than a decade of wars has wrought on a region that has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of active-duty residents. War is intensely personal to almost everyone who lives here, even those who aren’t in the military. They know someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, or came home damaged, or is dealing with war’s aftereffects of grief and turmoil.

“We’ve had so many funerals. So many memorials. So many injured people,” said Ouida Johnson, 59, of Virginia Beach, a legal assistant, as she ate a salad for lunch at the city’s downtown Town Center. “It’s on the news constantly.”

Both a strike against Syria and doing nothing seem to be bad propositions to her.

“I’m nervous either way,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that leaves us vulnerable. But I don’t want to go to another war. I’m warred out.”

The region has been on a war footing to some degree ever since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and many say the military presence paints a big target on their backs. Everyone from defense contractors to pizza deliverymen say they must undergo more rigorous screening and wait times to enter military installations. On Wednesday, a telephoned bomb threat led police to close down the bridge-tunnels that are major arteries, causing gridlock that lasted nearly 12 hours and stretched eight miles before the call was deemed a hoax. Many residents say that every time they enter an underwater tunnel, they fleetingly worry that a terrorist bomb will go off before they emerge.

But despite the widespread fatigue with war, many residents rush to point out that if President Obama orders air strikes against Syria, the military will obey without voicing any qualms.

“You’re in a town where that’s what people are trained to do,” said Anthony Protogyrou, a Norfolk native who served in the Army and Virginia National Guard and now is a Norfolk City Council member. “Whether it’s people in uniform or civilians working for the Navy, we take our orders and go on. People may personally have doubts, but they won’t express it publicly. That’s who we are. We’re not Richmond or Charlottesville.”

Still, with the opposition to military strikes overwhelming in his District, Rigell has assured constituents he will vote against the measure before Congress. Rigell said in a telephone interview that although he believes the evidence that Syria used chemical weapons is compelling, his concerns about the administration’s strategy have only been strengthened over time.

“We have overstretched and overtaxed our military,” he said.

Asked whether his active-duty constituents were weary of war, he said, without hesitation, “Yes.”

“Do they have the fight in them? Absolutely,” he said. “Make no mistake: They’re capable, they’re willing and they will go. But they’re tired.”

For some Hampton Roads residents, the decision to launch strikes against Syria is not an easy call.

Several rabbis talked about the dilemma over Syria during High Holiday services recently, and there is no consensus over the best course of action, said Harry Graber, executive vice president of the United Jewish Federation.

“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been very real for families here,” said Graber, whose next-door neighbor served five or six tours in the war zones and didn’t return from the last one. “As a result, people are a bit wary about the possibility of re-engaging in Syria.”

But, he added, the use of chemical weapons in Syria makes it difficult to rule out a retaliatory strike.

“It’s very hard to stand by and watch innocent children get slaughtered in such a cold and painful manner beyond what is considered the scope of acceptability, even during a war,” he said.

Barclay Winn, a Norfolk City Council member, said he thinks much of the opposition is a visceral reaction to entering a new war front.

“The majority think it’s none of our business,” he said. “But what happens if we don’t act? Do we open the whole world to chemical weapons? I don’t think the majority understand the ramifications if we do act, and if we don’t.”

For others, however, the immediate repercussions are deeply personal, and stark.

“We’ve been hit by furloughs. Downsizing is killing us,” said a Defense Department employee who gave only his first name, Jeff, at a ballpark groundbreaking in Norfolk. “We can’t downsize any more and maintain the tempo of operations.”

Not a single voice of support for even limited engagement in the Syrian conflict could be heard among more than a half-dozen veterans gathered Thursday night at VFW Tidewater Post 4809.

“Nooooooooo!” said John Whitehead, 81, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War who lives in Virginia Beach, stretching out the vowel for emphasis. “We’ve had enough of war. I’m tired of it.”

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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