Covering War at Home

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By: Sarah Weber Across the nation, the tide of public and editorial opinion has slowly turned against the war in Iraq. But how does this play out in communities that are home to the military bases that have sent more troops to Iraq than any others? And how have the local papers covered the recent upsurge in casualties?

Bases such as Fort Hood in Texas and Camp Pendleton in California have suffered the loss of more than 300 men and women; other ones such as Fort Lewis in Washington now combine individual memorials because of the high number of fatalities.

Newspapers in these areas face a daunting challenge in presenting the full effects of the war, and any split in opinion about it. But they are also in a position to observe how the community dynamics have shifted over the course of the conflict.

Opinions probably vary from base to base, but a New York Times story on July 12 looking at its new national survey of military members and their families found "eroding morale" and three main causes: "longer and multiple deployments, the continued chaos in Baghdad, and the growing death toll." Two-thirds said things were going badly in Iraq, and fewer than half said the United States did the right thing in invading.

Fort Hood, located near Killeen, Texas, has suffered more casualties than any other military base since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: The unofficial number drew close to 400 in mid-July. Marc Gilbert, managing editor of the Killeen Daily Herald, says simply, "Our soldiers have given a great deal." Partly for that reason, he adds, "This community will stick by its soldiers. This is not something that this community has thought about for just the last five years. It's part of our fabric."

Jeff Thomas, editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, says that the community surrounding Fort Carson isn't "a gauge of the American mood" when it comes to questions of troop withdrawal. "When it comes to the policy side of war," he adds, "I would suspect that you would find a greater percentage of our population in support of the political objectives that are behind the U.S. involvement in Iraq than you would in the general population."

As recently as July 5, Fort Carson soldiers gathered in Iraq to memorialize five of their own who were killed in a June 28 bombing; it was the single deadliest incident for the post's troops serving in Iraq.

Thomas says America's fighting men and women certainly have their own opinions about the war, "and in their private moments they may share that occasionally. But they also understand what their obligation is as someone who has taken the [military] oath. You have to respect someone who is going to do what they have to do, even if they don't agree with it." In the Fort Carson community, he adds, "they agree with and support that."

Chrissy Vick is the military reporter for the Daily News of Jacksonville, N.C. Nearby Camp Lejeune has suffered 275 fatalities in all. As she points out, most military base communities are made up of a variety of people, many of whom are not native to the area. "A lot of the guys that have been killed are not local," says Vick, "but that doesn't really seem to matter; these are 'brothers' of the guys in the units."

Like most of the military communities, Vick says that support for the soldiers has not waned. "All the stories I've done of the 'surge' from the Marines' perspective, it's their job," she notes. "They're not happy about leaving their families more often and for longer periods of time, and the families aren't happy to see them go. But they're all so positive that they want to serve and do what they can. They're willing to answer that call, and that's what they signed on the dotted line for."

Chantal Escoto, a reporter for The Leaf Chronicle of Clarksville, Ky., has covered the goings-on at nearby Fort Campbell for years, and was an early embed in Iraq (she graced the cover of E&P's December 2005 issue). Having witnessed her community adapt to the war from its onset, she is able to testify to the subtle shifts in perspective.

"It's having an affect on the community," says Escoto. "Local therapists have been seeing a lot of families who are upset," especially spouses who are troubled by their loved ones go back to war two, three, and four times.

Our troops, she says, "want the support of the American public. They have to be there whether the public supports the war or not. And they see it as, 'If you don't respect my mission, then you're not respecting me as a soldier.'

"I think that people will always support the troops," adds Escoto. "But I know that some people are grappling with the war policies that are coming out of Washington."

One community's support for its military has been tested not only by a high casualty count, but alleged war crimes as well. Camp Pendleton, located near Oceanside, Calif., hosted what became known as "The Pendleton Eight," who are accused of killing 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. The camp has two other cases pending against soldiers: One involves the alleged kidnapping and execution of a civilian in Hamdaniya; the other, which emerged in early summer, alleges that eight unarmed Iraqi prisoners were slain in Fallujah in 2004.

Rusty Harris, managing editor of the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., tells E&P that not only has Pendleton supplied large numbers of soldiers to Iraq, its men and women have been sent to the worst sections during the war's most violent moments. Despite the allegations of atrocities, "support for the men and women in active duty, as well as those who have served or retired, is as strong as it has ever been.

"If anything," Harris adds, the recent allegations "have forced a lot of residents to think harder and remember what it takes for a person to serve in times of war."

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