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In a Military Stronghold, a War Hawk Circles Back

June 19, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — With its sprawling military bases and huge population of military retirees, eastern North Carolina has believed in the Iraq war, and sacrificed for it, like few other regions.

But as summer heat has settled over the piney lowlands in recent days, a debate has unexpectedly come to life about a U.S. mission that is two years old and counting.

New doubts and divisions have come into view.

It started this month, when Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones, an original supporter of the war, said he had lost confidence in the effort and would sponsor legislation calling on the administration to more clearly define how, and when, it intended to bring the war to a close.

Coming from the staunch conservative who renamed French fries "freedom fries" on congressional menus, the announcement shocked many.

Back home, his change of heart brought denunciations and stirred trouble for Jones within his local Republican Party.

But it also became clear that others in North Carolina's 3rd Congressional District were uneasy about the war, for one reason or another.

Service members' families, watching violence surge, fear it will drag on indefinitely. Others worry it is damaging the military -- or that it has been prosecuted foolishly.

Jones "was right to go after the administration," said retired Marine Col. Jim Van Riper, a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm who supported the U.S. presence in Iraq but faulted the war plan. "Rumsfeld and the neo-cons have fouled it up from the beginning."

The debate is occurring in a place where support for the military is apparent to the most casual visitor. The highways around Jacksonville, near the entrance to the Marines' huge Camp Lejeune, are lined with car dealerships, military surplus stores, barber shops and other businesses festooned with American flags. Signs urge Americans: "Honk for the Troops" and "Pray for Our Heroes."

As tobacco farming has declined in recent decades, the military has become more important as a part of the local economy. About 60,000 retirees live in the 3rd District, which in addition to Camp Lejeune is home to the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and New River Marine Corps Air Station.

But these days, residents' anxieties, as well as their pride, are near the surface.

In the steamy parking lot of Jacksonville's Wal-Mart, Christy May, the wife of a Marine serving in Iraq, loads plastic summertime toys for her kids into the trunk of her car. She said she thought it would be a mistake to set a fixed time for withdrawal.

"History shows that it wouldn't make sense for us to walk away all of a sudden," said May, 42, of Jacksonville.

But she also acknowledges that she and her husband, a supply and logistics specialist, are split over whether the United States should be there at all. May is particularly anxious on this day, because her husband told her that insurgents had blown up his unit's communications hardware, forcing the Marines to travel by ground convoy rather than in aircraft. "I'm really worried about him today," she said.

Nearby, Kerri Hassell of Jacksonville, a 32-year-old single mother of three, said she was worried about the effect the war had on a number of close friends who were Marines, including one who was godfather to her children. She said she knew three young Marines who were about to leave the service. All have doubts about continuing the war, she said.

"Every one wants it to end," said Hassell, a community college student with a hairdressing business. "They don't know why they're over there."

In her view, "the government uses the word 'terror' and it just sends us all into a frenzy."

At the same time, the many in the area who support a continued U.S. effort have been outspoken, and the debate has seeped into local levels of government.

Joe McLaughlin, a former Army Ranger who sits on the Onslow County Board of Commissioners, has proposed having the county board officially declare its opposition to a fixed withdrawal date. He is pressing to have the board vote on the issue at a meeting Monday.

"The worst thing we can do is to announce that we're going to pull out by a certain date," said McLaughlin.

Tuesday, McLaughlin called for Jones to resign his post over his proposal; later in the week, he reconsidered and withdrew that request.

McLaughlin's stance split the county commissioners. The board's chairman, Lionell Midgett, argued that picking a fight with Jones could backfire when the area needed federal money for dredging a wetland or help in fighting a proposal to cut back military facilities.

Martin Aragona Sr., the county Republican chairman, said he had been polling members of a key party committee to decide how to respond to Jones' proposal. He said all those he'd reached wanted to take a position strongly opposing Jones. "This is not the time to be second-guessing the commander in chief," Aragona said.

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