The war comes home to Fayetteville:Thousands march for pullout from Iraq
Fayetteville on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is a military city rumbling with dissenting enlisted soldiers and returning soldiers trying to profit from the traffic of DVDs smuggled out of Iraq. Nearby Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the United States, meanwhile, is locked down tight as a drum.
Home of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces Command, the base ‘— like other military reservations, I would learn ‘— prohibits the taking of unauthorized pictures anywhere on its 160,000-acre expanse.
Calling for a military withdrawal from Iraq, the NC Peace & Justice Coalition positioned veterans and military families, including at least a dozen soldiers who have fought in Iraq, in front and center of its March 19 protest. By highlighting their participation, the anti-war movement is making a bid for mainstream credibility and seeking to neutralize criticism that protesting the war undermines the troops.
The largest banners proclaimed ‘“Support Our Troops ‘— Bring Them Home,’” and ‘“How do you ask a soldier to be the last person to die for a lie?’” a paraphrasing of John Kerry’s famous Vietnam-era plaint before the Congress.
Although the protesters were relatively few in number ‘— 2,500 by both police and organizers’ counts ‘— the dramatic stories of many of the soldiers and military families, and expressions of dissent by enlisted soldiers and civilians alike in Fayetteville suggests that serious cracks have appeared in the nation’s consensus on continuing the war. Amongst enlisted soldiers at Fort Bragg and residents of Fayetteville who depend on the military for jobs, one can easily find representatives of both poles of opinion.
The march took form around 11 a.m., as protesters who rode buses from Washington, DC and New York, and carpooled from points all over the Carolinas gathered at the Cumberland County Health Center. Iraqi war veterans took the lead, followed by veterans of the Gulf War and a much larger group of old soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Towards the back were rough groupings of communists and people of faith, including members of the International Socialist Organization, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the International Action Center.
Tucked in between the veterans and the faith groups was a large huddle of spouses, siblings and parents of soldiers who have decided to speak out against the war. It didn’t take me long to find a couple whose story absolutely floored me with its weight of grief.
Joyce Lucey, a blond-haired woman obscured behind dark sunglasses, held a photograph of a young man in the bloom of youth dressed in a flannel shirt whose smile conveys the All-American Boy. Her husband, Kevin, who works as a therapist for sex offenders, explained why they traveled to Fayetteville from their home in Belchertown, Mass.
Their son Jeffrey enlisted in the Marines in December 1999. In February 2003 he deployed to the Middle East and by mid-July that year he had returned from Iraq after attaining the rank of lance corporal. When he first returned he seemed fine, his father said, but then the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder began to emerge.
‘“He was vomiting daily,’” Kevin Lucey said. ‘“He started having difficulty sleeping. He had strained relations with us and his girlfriend. He would beg his mother for alcohol to self medicate. We never expected for that to happen.’”
He said he took his son to a Veterans Administration hospital, where the young man enumerated multiple ways he wanted to kill himself. Kevin Lucey got his son an involuntary committal, but he was released weeks later.
He tried to recommit his son, but instead the VA arranged for a therapist to visit the young man at home. Before that happened, Kevin Lucey found his son hanged by a garden hose in the cellar of their home.
Two dog tags belonging to Iraqi soldiers lay on Jeffrey Lucey’s bed on the day he killed himself.
‘“Jeff told us that they belonged to two unarmed Iraqis he was forced to shoot,’” his father said. ‘“At Christmas, he threw those dog tags at his younger sister, Deborah, and said, ‘I’m a murderer.””
Kevin Lucey said the Marine Corps has taken the position that there is no evidence to corroborate his son’s story.
‘“We personally believe our son, but we have no ability to verify it because we weren’t there,’” he said, ‘“but something happened in Iraq to destroy Jeff.’”
Jeffrey Lucey’s parents never really approved of the invasion of Iraq, but they wanted to find reasons to support it.
‘“We prayed that we would find weapons of mass destruction over there,’” he said. ‘“Now, what did he die for?’”
Army Spc. Patrick Resta, who served as a medic with the First Infantry Division in northeastern Iraq, traveled from Philadelphia to speak out against the war. Like many of the other military dissenters, he never wanted to fight. He said he was protesting before he got called up.
‘“My brothers and sisters are dying every day and there’s no outrage in the public,’” he said. ‘“The soldiers are being traumatized for nothing. There is no clear mission. It turns into surviving, and trying to make it home to your families.’”
Later I ran into an active-duty soldier at the Subway on Hay Street, Fayetteville’s main drag, who said he had attended the rally because he felt compelled to be there to show his opposition to the war, although he wasn’t willing to give his name.
He and his friend had served together in Afghanistan. Now they were protesting. Dressed in a Billabong athletic shirt with short blond hair altered by faded highlights, he looked like any other GI enjoying a Saturday afternoon off the base.
‘“I’m not going to lie to you,’” he said. ‘“I fight with my boss all the time. She’s a military lifer. She believes we should follow our president and the flag. I also argue with my girlfriend. She’s a military brat. It’s just not worth it to me.’”
The counter-protesters, whose numbers were estimated at about 200 by the police, did not take any of it in stride.
‘“They’re a bunch of communist organizations who are wallowing in the blood of American soldiers!’” a woman identified by a fellow demonstrator as Betsy Deming of Washington, DC shrieked through a bullhorn. ‘“The vets are being used as pawns by the International Socialist Organization!’”
The blue state-red state cultural divide in the United States ‘— always more psychological than geographic ‘— seems to be deepening if my interactions with these passionate crusaders against dissent can be trusted as a yardstick. I should preface this by saying I don’t think there’s anything particularly outstanding about my appearance or behavior that should make someone who supports the war immediately size me up as belonging to the other camp.
Yet engaging with the counter-demonstrators in conversation was an experience somewhat akin to entering the mind warp of espionage. I introduced myself to a woman standing on the fringe of the crowd as a reporter, handing her my YES! Weekly business card. She soon thrust it back at me, saying contemptuously: ‘“I could make those up at Kinko’s.’”
I tried engaging a Cuban man across the street in conversation but the language divide frustrated us. He kept repeating the message of his sign, which translated into English as ‘Freedom for Political Prisoners in Cuba.’ Then our attempts at communication were abruptly interrupted when a balding, barrel-chested man wearing a ‘Free Republic’ T-shirt jumped in between us.
‘“No! No! No!’” he shouted, waving his finger in my face as I held out my business card, and then grabbed the Cuban man by the arm and dragged him away.
A guy named Scott from Greensboro, who declined to give his last name, held a sign that read ‘Stop Global Whining.’
‘“I’m just here to support my troops,’” he said.
At that moment, some faction of the communists marched past, and the din of scorn and vitriol rose to a fevered pitch. Scott pulled out a small disposable camera and started snapping gleefully away.
Standing next to him, holding a sign that said ‘Do Not Dishonor the Blood of Patriots,’ was Thomas Atchison, a 45-year- old disabled veteran from Durham.
‘“We won fair and square and you guys lost on November second,’” he shouted. ‘“Guys, get over it. Who’s your daddy for the next four years? Dubya, Dubya’….’”
Down the street, a huddle of veterans in black leather jackets emblazoned with ‘Rolling Thunder’ across the back watched the procession go by. As veterans calling for an account of American soldiers still missing in action, they seemed unsure of what to make of their military comrades marching down the street.
‘“The congressmen and senators sent them there; they didn’t necessarily want to go,’” said Gordon Crig. ‘“Our stand is with the troops.’” But then he turned some heat on the protesters: ‘“Our boys are dying over there every day of the week. Think about it: Them boys are sitting over there being deprived of their families and possibly their lives. And when you all are out here protesting it gives strength to our enemies. If you want to protest, call up your congressman.’”
It didn’t take me long to decide to get clear of the rhetorical killing floor of Rowan Park, where mounted Fayetteville police watched vigilantly over the gathering of peaceniks, and Free Republic partisans chanted ‘“USA! USA!’” as an African-American mother from Georgia tried to explain from the stage what it felt like to lose her son in a war she never supported in the first place.
Downtown, along Fayetteville’s leisurely Hay Street with its wide brick sidewalks and quaint shops, the civilians were more than willing to talk about the war.
Don Mishue, an industrial engineer who was helping out at his wife’s gift basket shop, said he stands behind his president.
‘“Don’t bring ’em home until the job’s done, until they’re totally liberated,’” he said. ‘“It’s unfortunate that we have to be the big dog, but that’s the way it is. We can’t have terrorists.
‘“I feel sorry for the people that lost loved ones, but that’s the price you pay for freedom worldwide,’” he added.
He said 50 percent of his wife’s gift basket business are soldiers and military families, and that everyone in town is either in the military or has family in the military. Three young men standing in front of the store nodded in agreement.
Just as adamantly, Bernadette Alexander, a 49-year-old woman shopping for antiques, declared the war a waste.
‘“I think they need to come home and stop fighting,’” she said. ‘“It just seems like an endless battle. Whatever we doin’ over there we aren’t making any progress.’”
Across the street, three enlisted men were relaxing at a table outside the Rude Awakening coffee shop. Two who declined to give their names expressed ambivalence about the decision to go to war but derided the instinct to redeploy.
‘“You can’t just go in and mess things up and pull out,’” said one. ‘“There’s a vacuum of leadership.’”
His buddy, a bulky guy in a red sweatshirt, added: ‘“If oil’s already standing at fifty dollars a barrel, what’s going to happen if the Iranians and Saudis go start a skirmish with each other? They’re as different as the Catholics and Baptists. That’s one good thing Saddam was there for. He was a ruthless dictator, but he kept the region stable.’”
As the three soldiers got up to go meet a friend, a guy with a shaved head pulled to the curb in a late-model American car with an 82nd Airborne vanity plate.
‘“Hey, are you a reporter?’” he yelled after me. ‘“Come over here. You got any money? I’ve got a DVD that I smuggled out of Iraq that will blow your mind. This is sh*t they’ve never shown on NBC. This was e-mailed to a general from al-Qaeda, some video of an interpreter being beheaded, some guy with blood spurting out his neck and they’re catching it in a bucket.’”
The guy was aggressive, trying to close the deal fast, glancing nervously up and down the street. He demanded my business card. I told him it wasn’t likely I was going to buy the DVD from him, but he could give me his phone number if he wanted to. (Paying for information gives me ethical pause, to put it mildly.)
‘“No, I don’t think I want to give you my phone number,’” he said. He got me to write down my home number, so he could avoid calling me at work.
‘“If you buy this, you better come prepared with a barf bag,’” he told me in parting.
After encountering both principled defiance and sleazy profiteering amongst enlisted soldiers, I supposed I might have imagined that anything was possible outside the imposing gate of Fort Bragg. My editor had suggested that I take a picture of the base. I took on the assignment with zeal.
I rode down to Fayetteville and back to Greensboro with a married couple, both of them Episcopal priests, their young adopted son and a female UNCG student in the couple’s minivan. All four were in Fayetteville to protest the war, which would prove a little awkward for all five of us.
The priests readily agreed to stop on the shoulder of US 421 so I could take the picture. From the roadway, there wasn’t much to see, and I jogged closer to the gate, where military police with assault rifles waved authorized vehicles through after inspecting identification cards. The image of the sign and the men with guns under an imposing gate made me greedy. Just as I was dropping down to one knee to take the shot, one of the MPs shouted: ‘“Stop!’” and waved me over to the guard post.
One of the MPs took my digital camera, as well as my driver’s license and a business card. He told me to stay put, and he went in the guardhouse to call his boss and run a background check on me. The other MP urged me to wave the minivan over.
We all ended up standing together in front of the guardhouse, joking nervously about our circumstances. An MP sergeant drove up and warily appraised us. When I gave him my explanation he laughed lightly and told me he wouldn’t sweat if he was me, but didn’t volunteer any information about how long we might remain in detention or how my violation might be reserved.
I somehow had the good sense to not tell him I was following the dictum of my photojournalism class at Columbia Journalism School of ‘shoot first and ask questions later.’
The Episcopal priests seemed to have a sense of humor about my poor judgment, and the wife even bragged discretely to me that she had gotten away with taking a photograph of a notorious military base in El Salvador during a visit with an anarchist friend in the Catholic Worker movement. Another page in the FBI file, I guess.
A Sgt. Stewart of the Military Police asked us what we were doing at the rally.
‘“It was a lot of military families and some others ‘— a wide range of people, actually ‘— honoring the troops but calling for them to be able to come home from Iraq,’” the husband explained, trying to put as mild a spin on it as possible.
But the kid chimed in, puncturing the adult pretensions.
‘“Because George Bush lied!’” he insisted good-naturedly to the sergeant.
‘“He learns well,’” his mother said.
‘“Well, I guess everyone’s entitled to their opinion,’” the sergeant allowed.
After three interrogations, the last with a plain-clothes investigator who returned my camera and advised me to call the public affairs department the next time I wanted pictures, a Fort Bragg police car escorted us off the base and sent us on our way back to Greensboro.