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. (Published 7/23/04)
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.
Paul Rieckhoff fought with the division and has since left the Army. This week, he is launching Operation Truth, a nonpartisan group dedicated to telling the public about the war in Iraq from the perspective of those who fought there.
"People can deal with it if it's honest and up-front," he says about the deployments. "But they've broken their word so many times it gets frustrating. Everyone says they love George W. Bush, but when you get over there and see your buddies blown up and then think: 'What the hell are we doing over there?' You start to think: 'Who do I hold responsible?'
"My overall encapsulation is that the public will be overwhelmingly surprised at how many people coming back from Iraq will not vote for George W. Bush."
Yes, war is a fearsome enterprise, and yes, this is a new and dangerous world, but "how the deployment was handled made it worse," says Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington think tank. Return dates are announced and canceled at the last minute. Missions are open-ended. For soldiers used to planned rotations, this kind of uncertainty crushes morale. Add to that the overall chaos in Iraq and "there's a lot of resentment," says Thompson. "If you're in the Army, you feel the institution is unraveling all around you."
"For the first time I hear officers openly debating against Bush," says Donald Vandergriff, an Army major and a professor at Georgetown University. "They don't want to vote for Bush and they don't want to vote for Kerry. What choices do they have? Zero, basically."
The Defense Department does not allow soldiers to be polled on their political opinions, and the culture still distrusts anyone who expresses those opinions too overtly. But it's clear that the military, famously conservative, hasn't pulled away from Bush. A recent poll of families with current and retired military members showed them supporting Bush 52 percent to 44 percent.
But at Fort Stewart, some of the support seems less of the enthusiastic than of the devil-we-know variety.
Aaron Symonette is in a transportation unit about to return to Iraq, and his wife, Judy, says this time she's "twice as scared, twice as nervous. To be honest with you, I feel it's unnecessary, that we should have pulled out once we captured Saddam."
Aaron Symonette doesn't think about those larger questions except "whenever somebody gets captured or killed. That's when we think, man, why are we really here?" To the families at Fort Stewart, the concept of exit strategy is not abstract. The families were expecting soldiers home on July 2, 2003, so Judy lost weight, got her hair done, hung white banners and balloons, ironed the kids' clothes, bought a bottle of her husband's favorite champagne. And then the night before, she was told, no, he wasn't coming home yet, and he didn't until October.
Still, "although I'm irritated, I still would prefer Bush over Kerry," she says. "Bush has already started this thing and he knows what's going on. The rapport is already established. A new person would just have to be briefed all over again and that makes me nervous."
Most experts assume officers will continue to vote Republican. But as for the other components that make up the military vote -- enlisted personnel, veterans, dependents -- their votes are "in play," says Christopher Parker, a former Army captain and a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In an election in which national security is a prime issue, the morale of the troops takes on outsize significance. And it takes only small shifts to make a difference. If Eglin Air Force Base were in Alabama instead of Florida, says Thompson, Al Gore would be in the White House. A 5 percent shift in the veterans' vote would have given New Hampshire and Arkansas to Gore.
The people most likely to shift their support from Bush to Kerry are in the reserves and National Guard, says David Segal, a professor at the University of Maryland. "In the past the antiwar movement was rooted in college campuses," he says. "Now the major movement against the war is in reserve families."
Reservists, used to serving a weekend a month, are being called up for a year at a time, over and over. They leave homes to serve in jobs for which they feel unprepared, attached to commanders and units they don't know. "We are the stepchildren, here to be abused," says Michael Ray Gibbins, eating his lunch at Fort Stewart with two buddies from the Texas National Guard at the end of a day that started at 3 a.m.
Gibbins lacks the sense of, well, reserve that keeps some career soldiers quiet about the election or the war.
"They ought to shoot the person who made us go over there," he says.
Gibbins has been grafted to a unit here for a year, and for now he's mostly guarding the base. He's a mechanic but like many reservists is being retrained as a military police officer. "If they sent us over there now, we'd die," he says.
Gibbins was on the crew that helped clean up after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle. He wears a shirt with this quote from Bush: "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth. Yet we can pray they are safely home."
"This does not -- I repeat -- does not show my support for Bush," he says. "I'm supporting the crew."
Even outside the reserves, it's not hard to find people who are newly disillusioned. They are parents who lost children, soldiers who went over and found it hard to maintain the sense that Iraqis were evil, or that their commanders had everything under control. They've become antiwar, and some are anti-Bush, but they don't sound like the usual suspects.
Jean Prewitt's son was with the 3rd Infantry Division and was killed three weeks into war. But she swears that has nothing to do with her opposition to the war. She's just been reading the papers, she says, and can't fight the sense that "we find out more and more each day how we were lied to. We went there for no good reason. It's just so big and tragic and horrible."
Her sister sent her a clipping about a group called Military Families Speak Out, and she joined. "A lot of them are radical, peace not war, that kind of thing, and I'm not one of those." She's a former postal worker and a lifelong conservative. But the war has changed her. "It just frustrates me, how they won't admit they made a mistake."
Sgt. Frank Carey went over with the 3rd Infantry Division. At first, he was "excited. It was like 'Red Badge of Courage.' " That feeling lasted through the initial invasion. "There was just elation, that we'd been bombed and we were still in one piece. That it had gone pretty smoothly."
But then came the occupation. "I didn't know what the plan was and I was hoping someone two grades above us knew and wasn't telling me for some reason. Then it dawned on me: I don't think there is one. It was a very uneasy realization."
Carey talked to Iraqis and found it hard to maintain the sense that this was part of the axis of evil. "The Iraqis were just like us, dads who don't want their daughter to marry some jerk.
"As time went on I felt like I'd been caught in some big machine and that machine had a goal and no matter what happened, it would achieve that goal."
Who will he vote for?
"That's a good question," he says. Last time he went out of his way to vote for Bush, getting special permission to leave a training mission and go to the polls. "This time I'm on the fence. But more on the fence between someone like Nader and Kerry."
The Ones Back Home
It's summer, and deployment still feels far enough away. Some soldiers buy Harleys or motorbikes. A surprising number are in a rush to get married. On the drive to the Burger King or the base gym, Heroes Walk can look like a landscaping project. But there are signs of what's to come. The PX has just launched its Back to School sale, a reminder of the next important cycle parents will miss. Mothers are starting to notice how clingy their kids have become -- she's such a daddy's girl now, they'll say, I don't know what she'll do when he's gone.
Carrie Moss is an Army wife who's both calm and wants to know everything. "Whatever he'll tell me, I'll take." She knows every detail of how the men in her husband Brennan's battalion got killed or injured, and even some things he doesn't know she knows. Like when she overheard him tell his father on the phone, "Three times, I just knew I was gonna die."
She also knows her husband is one of the "crazy ones," that his view of combat is "when you play football, you don't train just to sit on the bench." And she knows there are some even crazier, like the guy in his battalion who was in a vehicle that exploded. He lost most of his hearing and some of his sight, but downplays his injuries so he can fight with the Special Forces.
She takes comfort in a couple of things: "He's not stupid," and he operates cannons, which means he shoots from a few miles away. And some part of her hopes he'll accept the Army's offer to become a recruiter, although she knows he wouldn't like it. "Either way, I'm not worried," she says.
Unlike her friend Julie Samples. Asked how she feels about the impending deployment, Samples says, without hesitation:
"I'm scared. I'm scared."
For Samples, calm is hard to maintain. She looks at al Qaeda Web sites. She's drawn to articles about the beheadings. "It's so scary over there now. All the suicide bombings and kidnappings. I don't want to use the word, but it's just barbaric."
Last year her 25-year-old daughter Ebony was found dead from an accidental overdose. Now she feels close to families who experience loss but finds no comfort with them.
"Who's that, sweetie?" she asks her daughter Treanna, 3, who has picked up one of the many glamour shots that decorate the living room. "That's my Ebony!" the child answers, referring to a sister she barely knew. This morning the family is busy getting ready for day care, for camp, for their father Corey, a staff sergeant, to go back to training. "The maid is off today," jokes Julie to Corey Jr., 7, as his father hustles Treanna out the door.
Only when her husband and youngest daughter are gone does she confess:
"If he were to die . . . ," she says, unable to speak for a moment. "I don't ever want to go there.
"God is good. He doesn't give you more than you can bear."
For her, waiting is all about praying. She founded a wives group at her church called Prayerfully Waiting. This is their special spouse's prayer: "Lord, give me the greatness of heart to see the difference between duty and his love for me. Give me a task to do each day to fill the time when he is away. While he is in a foreign land, keep him safe in Your loving hand. And when duty is in the field, please protect him and be his shield."
She does not see the need for this war but doesn't blame the president. The thought that a commander in chief may have done this for the wrong reason is just too scary. She "believes in Bush," she says, the way she believes in prayer. It's something she clings to.
While she's talking she notices Corey Jr. behind her. He just won a prize for a Cub Scout essay about how he wanted to be a soldier, she says brightly.
"No I don't," he answers.
"Bang. Bang," he says, pointing his finger at his chest and turning his head to the wall in mock death.