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THE NATION | A Nation Waits

Here, the Cost of War Is No Abstraction

January 12, 2003|PETER H. KING

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Signs of imminent deployment can be subtle, but the people who live in this city adjacent to the Army's Ft. Bragg and Pope Air Force Base have learned to read them. They describe, for example, how paratroopers about to be deployed will begin appearing around town in desert camouflage, breaking in new battle fatigues, softening up boots.

In pawnshops and military surplus stores, there will be a run on knives, kneepads, binoculars. Soldiers with families will purchase pistols for "home protection," as one put it last week, while they are away overseas.

At Cumberland United Methodist Church, Pastor Hope Vickers said she notices an increase in "whispered conversations" among soldiers in her congregation.

"And," she said, "there is a massive amount of drawing up powers-of-attorney and wills and all those things. And you have more weddings -- a lot more weddings."

Not long ago, Vickers said, a bride-to-be called her on a Monday to make arrangements for a full, formal wedding -- for the coming Friday.

The pastor's husband, Darrell Vickers, added that church members who belong to the elite, and somewhat mysterious, special operations teams based at Ft. Bragg often let their hair and beards grow out just before they deploy -- aiming for the moujahedeen look. At the same time, a certain somberness sets in.

"You see these special ops guys at the communion rail praying," Vickers said, "and you just know they are dealing with some very, very tough decisions."

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In many American neighborhoods and cities, it is possible to conduct a debate about going to war almost totally in the abstract. In this era of base closings and all-volunteer forces, most Americans do not have members of their immediate family in the military. Most do not live with or among those who will be dispatched to do the nation's fighting.

This was the point U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) made last week when he called for a resumption of the draft: "Service in our nation's armed forces," he declared in a New York Times op-ed piece, "is no longer a common experience."

Rangel's DOA proposal, of course, was in large part political gamesmanship: Members of Congress, he was suggesting, might be less gung-ho about invading Iraq if their own sons and daughters faced a call to arms. Nonetheless, the underlying observation about a growing divide between mainstream America and its military seems empirically valid.

In which case, Fayetteville might be seen as an exception that demonstrates the rule. Located in the Cape Fear River Valley, about 65 miles south of Raleigh, Fayetteville (pop. 121,000) is a city thoroughly intertwined with the military.

Soldiers are everywhere -- in the malls and barbecue shacks, in banks and workout rooms. Most wear uniforms. Fort Bragg Boulevard, the main drag out from town to Ft. Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, is an asphalt gantlet of strip clubs, pawnshops and used-car lots -- all catering to the uniformed crowd.

The bases kick an estimated $2 billion a year into the city's economy, and the large-scale deployment for Operation Desert Storm created a downturn in fortunes still remembered with a shudder by some merchants. And, should an invasion of Iraq occur, it might well happen again.

"When the world dials 911," said George Breece, interim president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, "the phone is answered here, and we expect it. We are not numb to what it takes out of the local economy, but it's a small price to pay for freedom.

"The military ," he said, "is entirely part of the fabric of this community." And in a large-scale deployment, "the first thing we recognize is not the drag in retail sales. The first thing we recognize is that Sgt. Smith is not there coaching the Little League baseball team, that Airwoman Jones is not there to teach Sunday school, that Chief Warrant Officer Bagget is not at the Rotary Club breakfast."

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This appears to be a relationship both parties, the city and the military, work to nurture. Fayetteville offers a number of programs to assist military families, especially in times of deployment. Ft. Bragg -- the nation's most populous military facility with 45,000 paratroopers, Green Berets and other personnel -- opens its gates to townsfolk for everything from tutoring to ice skating.

City and base officials travel together on lobbying missions to Congress. In 2001, when Fayetteville campaigned to be designated an All American City, its presentation ended with a rousing performance by the Ft. Bragg chorus, 30 uniformed soldiers belting out Lee Greenwood's ballad "God Bless the U.S.A."

"That sort of clinched it," recalled Breece.

Col. Tad Davis, garrison commander at Ft. Bragg, can list a number of mutual benefits that flow from the neighborly relationships between the fort and Fayetteville and other nearby communities -- not the least of which is maintaining a sense of connection among the soldiers, not only to the town where they live, but to the American mainstream.

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