By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007
BRUNSWICK, Maine The woman stood waiting amid the lunch counter clatter at the Grand City Variety Store to confront Olympia J. Snowe.
"We need to get out," Stephanie Slocum told Snowe, one of Congress's most conflicted members over the war in Iraq. It was the Maine Republican's first week of her summer break, and Slocum was among the first of many constituents who would tell her the time to act is now.
The self-described "proud mother of an Army cavalry scout," Slocum is taking Iraq personally. She told Snowe in a matter-of-fact voice about her 27-year-old son, who is now home but shouts angrily at her, whose body trembles, who at times feels he is still in Iraq and who, if Congress does not begin to redeploy troops by September, will be sent back. She spoke of her son's leave that never came, the goggles to protect him that she had to buy herself and the mental health treatment he has just given up. Because, he told his mom, "what's the sense" if he has to go back.
"Outrageous," Snowe said of the problems. "I would encourage him to continue to get his care."
"I do, but you know how it is," Slocum said. "In the Army . . . if you get the therapy, it's shame on you."
As she spoke, Slocum's poise slipped, and her voice shook. She was frustrated, most of all, with the failure of Washington to make it end -- and frustrated, too, with Snowe's careful hedging on Iraq. "I think you've changed your position a little bit, and we're very appreciative of that," she told her senator. "But it doesn't seem like whatever we think -- as the majority of people in Maine and across the country -- it doesn't seem to have any impact."
Snowe has changed her position. A believer that the war was a lost cause, she had nonetheless remained loyal to President Bush and against calling for a firm deadline for a troop withdrawal, which congressional Democrats had been demanding. But last month, she gave in to her concerns about a war that appeared without end and became one of only two GOP senators to join Democrats in calling for a timeline to bring troops home, an effort that so far has failed.
This stroll along Brunswick's red cobblestone main street was the first extended time that Snowe has spent in her home state since her decision. She won reelection to a third term last year with 74 percent of the vote after telling people that she favored "no open-ended commitment to the war."
During her visits this week to Brunswick and Portland and towns in between, her constituents told Snowe that what she said last year, or even last month, was no longer enough. In tales of outward pride and private grief, they nearly all demanded that the war end now.
Snowe turned to Slocum and told her that what Mainers think about the war does matter. "I know it doesn't seem that way. But there is a lot of movement, I think," she said. Snowe said that a progress report on the war due from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in mid-September "will be a catalyst for change."
Slocum said she hopes so. But this war, she told Snowe, "just doesn't make sense to people like ourselves."
Nor does it seem to to Gary Lawless, the long-haired, bearded proprietor of Gulf of Maine Books, a poet who told Snowe that he is teaching writing to combat-stressed veterans "to get their stories literally out of their bodies, so they're not carrying them around by themselves."
The senator, nodding, told him, "I've seen what they put people through."
They seemed to be talking from two distant places. The poet musing on his veterans and their pain. The senator using Washington words to say she understands. She has been to Iraq twice and said she will go again in September, that she has spoken to the president. "On an individual basis, if you know of anything our office can do to help," she said, motioning to an aide.
Lawless shook his head. "They don't trust the government to help them."
In a coffeehouse across the street, Snowe found Jennifer James, 28, who had just returned from duty in the Green Zone. As a member of the 356th Broadcast Operations Detachment, James had heard Army briefings and the satellite feeds of members of Congress who broadcast messages home during tours there.
"What do you think?" Snowe asked her.
James bit her lip: "I'm proud of my service. I'm glad it's done." During her year in the Green Zone, "we started getting mortared heavily, very, very heavily," James said, describing the attacks' escalating from two or three in a week to 19 in a single day. People she knew were killed.
"Do you see any progress?" Snowe asked.
"The Iraqis say it's taken so long for everything to get so bad, in 40 years, it will be good," James said. "Forty years is a long time."
Later, in a car ride to the nearby town of Saco, Snowe mused on what she had been hearing. Initially, she backed the war, "because we were there. It did appear at the time that we were making military progress," and there was a need to rebuild and put a democratic government in place.
But, she said, "who could imagine that the war would last 4 1/2 years?"
"Now the question is," Snowe said, "what can we do?"
On Sept. 1, the Government Accountability Office will issue a report on whether the political benchmarks set for the Iraqi government have been met. That will fuel the arguments that she expects to have with the Petraeus report, due two weeks later. And the week after that, Snowe said, must come action.
She arrived in Saco, where last week Army recruiters said they had already met their goal for the year, signing up 83 men and women from throughout this region of shuttered textile mills.
During her visit, Snowe dropped in on the town's mayor, Mark Johnston, in the wine shop he owns downtown. "I don't want to spill any more American or English blood or any other of our allies' blood in a country that is not ready for democracy," he told Snowe.
She replied with her own frustration, the failure of the nascent Iraqi government. "I don't see any determination" on their part, she said.
Like Congress, the Iraqi parliament is taking August off. Johnston quoted his son, a Marine returned last year from a seven-month tour in Iraq, on the subject: "I'm sweating in 135-degree heat . . . [facing] death so the atrocities won't occur, and they can take a vacation?"
Last year, the mayor had confronted Snowe about "the lack of equipment, the lack of a whole policy. I wanted her to distance herself from the president."
Now, he told her, "I compliment you for taking a stand. As an elected official, I know sometimes it's hard to say: 'I made a mistake.' "