A Shrinking Base
Support for War Wanes Among Military Families Facing Redeployment
By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page C01
Yes, sir, this is Bush country: Real pit barbecues, yellow ribbons on church doors, wild boar in the woods. Fort Stewart 10 minutes away. And one teenage party loyalist greeting guests for his mother's Party for the President, on National Party for the President Day, a boy with impeccable manners who, when peppered with questions by the adults in the living room, blurts out things such as "Condi Rice speaks, like, three languages!"
So why does hostess Michele Bourque sound as defensive as if she were living in Berkeley?
"There's just so much negativity around," she says, explaining her decision to host this party. "There's not a lot of positive affirmation about why George W. Bush should be president. We just want to let people know, he's not as bad as people think."
Bourque is not a balloons and party hats type. Her family just moved to this ranch house outside Savannah and the decorations are spare -- some birthday cards on the mantelpiece next to a portrait of the president and the first lady, plus trays of cold cuts and fruit to feed a couple of dozen people. Alas, only two have turned out this evening, an Army couple from the base.
But between them and the kids, they are plenty enthusiastic. Christopher, the young host, recently wrote Bush a letter to "cheer him up, and let him know how grateful I am for what he did in Iraq." His father, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Bourque, is about to be deployed there. Christopher's twin brother, Andrew, wrote one, too, telling Bush to "relax, have fun whenever he can, because right now he's in for a fight." A form letter response from the president also sits on the mantelpiece.
"Kerry, Kerry, Kerry," says one of the guests, Stacie Young. "These young guys in the squad say, 'I'm voting for Kerry,' " she says, meaning the guys who serve with her husband. "And I say, 'Why would you do that? Vote for your kids! Vote for your security!' "
To her husband, John, a sergeant who fought with the 11th Engineers, the view of Iraq in the media is unrecognizable. In the stories he tells at the party, Iraq is a place where soldiers throw candies to children and drink sweet tea. It's where he saw a sergeant get shot in the neck to save his platoon, where for the first time he felt a sense of purpose. Where "we felt like celebrities, we would march around and the people would chant, 'Saddam bad, Bush good.' "
Many Unhappy Returns
Sometime around Election Day -- rumors on the base say between November and January -- troops from Fort Stewart will be deployed to Iraq. Most here belong to the 3rd Infantry Division, the one known during the war as the tip of the spear. They are the troops who fought in Najaf, led the march into Baghdad, seized Saddam International Airport and Hussein's palaces, who led the fighting the day the iconic was pulled down. So for most, this will be their second tour. But the mood going in this time is very different.
Most have been home long enough to settle into a domestic routine, but not long enough to obscure the memory of watching someone in their unit get shot. Plus, this time the mission is murkier, the enemy more elusive and the return date open-ended.
"The first time I was kind of scared, but it wasn't as bad as I expected. We did our jobs without too much of a struggle," says Spec. Ben Schlabach, who's in a maintenance company. "Now it's a totally different ballgame over there. You don't know who's on your side. You have to be alert, keep your eyes open. You don't know when you'll come home. You just don't know what to expect."
The second time, it's hard to maintain the conviction that the citizenry of Iraq is entirely grateful to be liberated. Spouses have been trained to be on alert for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and all have heard the story of the soldier who came home and, when his wife asked him to change the baby's diaper, flung his wife across the room. Any sense of adventure is dampened by the existence of a new Heroes Walk on base, 45 saplings planted in honor of the men of Fort Stewart who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Talk to a soldier eating his burger in the base food court and he'll tell you he's ready to complete the mission and support his commander in chief. "I got a job and I'll go out and do it," says Staff Sgt. Jeff Laplante. Others talk about unfinished business or even revenge, if someone they know was killed. They are professionals, they chose this path and they are deeply patriotic.
But some soldiers say the picture is murkier, particularly if their families are around. In the weeks leading up to deployment, soldiers are psyching themselves up by listing all that they fight for: family, buddies, their home town, democracy and God. Last time around the sentiment extended naturally to the president. Now that connection for some soldiers is what pollsters call soft.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Carrie Moss and son Keelan at Fort Stewart. Her husband is one of the "crazy ones," she says, whose view of combat is "you don't train just to sit on the bench."
(Hanna Rosin -- The Washington Post)
A July 21 Style article on military families at Fort Stewart in Georgia incorrectly described Julie Samples as looking at al Qaeda Web sites. She said she has considered visiting such sites but has not done so. Also, her son Corey Jr. did not win a Cub Scout essay contest; he was featured in an article about the Cub Scouts.