SPRING LAKE, N.C. — The ritual is familiar: the ships of war leaving the dock, the wives and children waving tearful farewells, members of Congress bellowing about whether the national interest is truly at stake.
These are the images of a time when the country is poised on the brink of battle.
But in this small and friendly military town near Ft. Bragg--home of the rapid-deployment specialists of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps--such scenes are more than just images. In Spring Lake, war is not a video game.
Kim, the smiling young woman behind the counter at Revco Drugs, said that she expected her husband--who returned not long ago from service in Somalia--to be mustered out of the Army two months from now. Instead, he is on standby alert for Haiti.
In the Wal-Mart store next door, the aisles are filled with special forces troops in camouflage fatigues and red berets, stocking up on last-minute items, convinced that they are about to go to war.
"Three pair of boxer shorts for $25?" asked one soldier, who had the muscles and smooth skin of someone barely 20. "I ain't taking those overseas."
"I think they're supposed to give us loose cotton T-shirts and underwear," said his buddy.
While officers may know the details of a possible invasion of Haiti, the enlisted men apparently do not.
Here in Spring Lake and the nearby towns of pine-tree-studded countryside in central North Carolina, everyone would know dozens of people embroiled in any battle. Yellow ribbons and signs of encouragement in store windows are likely to be visible everywhere.
In Old Sarge's surplus store, a tilting wooden house painted in camouflage colors where soldiers can get dog tags made, patches sewn on and uniforms mended, business is already up 800%.
"It gets like this when there is about to be a deployment," said the woman behind the counter, who asked that her name not be used. For three days it has been difficult to move among the aisles because of all the soldiers.
"Have a nice day," she told one trooper with a Special Forces patch, who was buying extra dog tags.
"Arrrghhh," he groaned to convey that a nice day seemed to be an unlikely prospect.
But some signs of impending invasion are not so subtle.
The freeways from Fayetteville to the port of Wilmington were crammed earlier this week with convoys of equipment--thousands of trucks and Humvees and at least 39 Sheridan M-551 tanks to be loaded for an impending operation.
"Bragg Convoys Clog Roads" read the headline in the local paper.
"You couldn't move," said a corporal eating lunch at Pizza Hut. "With all the stuff we had on the road, it has to be a massive deployment."
"And it didn't look like no exercise," a buddy chimed in.
For two days, the local television news stations have shown film of equipment being loaded onto ships at the Sunny Point Army port near Wilmington.
While speculation grows, there is official silence at Ft. Bragg. Reporters are forbidden to talk to anyone on post and are threatened with arrest if they disobey.
The soldiers know the order and refused to give their names. And most "don't know anything anyway," a public affairs officer warned.
So it is something that cannot be talked about, something that is not fully known. "You here to do a story about the deployment?" asked a sergeant, who insisted on simply being called D.L. from Houston. He was waiting in line at a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food restaurant off post.
"Deployment to where?" asked his buddy, facetiously.
"Bosnia," answered D.L. with a grin.
Despite the seeming likelihood of an invasion of Haiti, fear seemed muted.
"Nobody is up in arms about it," said Dave Farrell, who works at the Radio Shack just off the base, where customers are mostly soldiers.
"Some people are afraid, some aren't," said Kim at Revco, whose husband works in communications.
On Wednesday, the 82nd Airborne, which is part of the 18th, announced the opening of a center designed to help families cope with any deployment of troops. The center will provide daily updates on soldiers in combat, long-distance phone lines and fax machines, and sessions with support groups. The center was months in the planning, but the timing of the opening this week seems more than coincidental.
Many family members echo the philosophy of the military: "We're ready for whatever happens," said Barbara, whose husband is on standby. "Ready to go in 18 hours. But we're ready to do that all the time."
The 82nd Airborne, "The All Americans," as the unit's soldiers are called, led the invasion of Grenada in 1983, was sent to Honduras in 1988 expecting to fight Nicaraguan Sandinistas, led the invasion of Panama in 1989 and led the ground offensive in the Persian Gulf War in February, 1991.
There seems little doubt that the 82nd will go to Haiti too if there is an invasion.