Veterans, families say Iraq war is increasingly complicated cause

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Veterans, families say Iraq war is increasingly complicated cause
by Bill Whitaker

TEXAS–Navy Seabee Nick Carter returned home to Waco about a month ago after serving eight months in Iraq. He voices pride in his work building base camps for Iraqi security forces. He says he’s confident in their progress.

He also prides himself in his military lineage.

My father was an engineer in the Army Reserve during the first Gulf War under the first Bush, he says of his dad, Robert Carter, 52, also of Waco. I’m doing the same thing in the second Gulf War under the second Bush.

But the 26-year-old Navy petty officer notes a shift in the patriotic fervor that infused the American home front during the first years of the ongoing war in Iraq. When he’s in uniform, some people congratulate him. A few, he says, even offer to buy his lunch or dinner…

     

Yet there’s no denying that the public passions that soared when the nation invaded Iraq in 2003 have waned. Area veterans and their families say they’re not surprised, but they are disappointed.

It’s kind of died down in some parts of the community, Carter says. I think it’s dropped off mostly with people who haven’t had a loved one actually go through all this.

A year after Vice President Dick Cheney said the Iraq insurgency was in its last throes and three years after President Bush declared a formal end to major hostilities in Iraq, the war festers and public approval ratings for the president and his conduct of the war sag.

A grim routine

The war isn’t off the nation’s radar, but daily reports of casualties, explosions and a fiercely resistant insurgency have made it part of a grim routine for some Americans, including many living in the Waco area, not far from President Bush’s ranch and sprawling Fort Hood.

Some Central Texans claim patriotism is alive and well, just more intimate and low-key than it was in the opening, optimistic days of the invasion in March 2003. Often it manifests itself in individual churches, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and businesses where employees have family members serving if they aren’t themselves serving.

People were very supportive of me, especially my pastor and my whole church family, says Mary Jo Chatham, 56, a Mexia State School employee who came to Waco in April to welcome her daughter, Marine Reserve Gunnery Sgt. Jacqueline Chatham Riggins, 39, back from several months in Iraq. Jackie was raised in Mexia, and we’d have meetings at my church to talk about the war and we’d have prayer services.

Anxiety over her daughter leaves Chatham still focused on the war.

My daughter got back, she says. But I’m still praying for all the others there because they’re somebody’s kids, and a lot of them are being killed.

A few war reminders

Sometimes only a few people keep war reminders up, such as 15-year-old Midway High student Shelby Michals. In 2003, she led a campaign to tie yellow ribbons around dozens of trees on Western Ridge Drive in West Waco when her dad, Dean Michals, an Air Force reservist, began flying C-141 missions, delivering the dead and wounded out of Iraq.

A pilot for Delta Airlines, Dean Michals, 48, is back home, but Shelby continues the campaign, mostly by herself.

If the ribbons get worn, she’s got the permission of neighbors to replace them, says her mother, Deborah. Of course, we have a very conservative, Republican, patriotic neighborhood. A lot of our neighbors have been touched by the war. We have one neighbor who is deployed and another who has two sons deployed.

Others fear the American public has lost interest in the war, partially because of its length and its daunting political and military complexities.

I think they’ve forgotten 9/11 and the folks who caused it, says 65-year-old Bobby Hurst, of Valley Mills, a Waco native formerly of the Texas Army National Guard. A lot of these guys are the same ones we’re fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t think people realize we’re actually in a war because it’s unlike any we’ve ever had.

We don’t have any country to go to and try and stop the war, he says. These guys are scattered all the way from Afghanistan to Malaysia.

Not like other wars

Aside from ribbonlike auto stickers urging people to Support Our Troops and Bless Our Troops, support for the war isn’t as obvious in the Waco area.

Waco resident Carl Ellis, 80, a World War II and Vietnam veteran, says the Iraq war for the most part resonates far differently than World War II did. More than 60 years ago, people on the American home front scrimped on commodities and gasoline and bought war bonds to help in the war effort.

Few sacrifices are asked of Americans today.

A few years into World War II, many also saw an end to the conflict looming. But that isn’t as obvious this time and that’s left many Americans disheartened, he says.

It gets hot and cold, depending on where you are and whether you have anyone in the service, Ellis says of active public support for the war. Like around Fort Hood, they’re pretty patriotic. But if you don’t have anyone close to you who is in the military and is over there and you don’t keep up with the news, you’re not as likely to be patriotic.

Julie Curtis-Win, 49, a Temple resident who has run the Texas Military Family Foundation since before the Iraq war, says her organization still collects everything from baby powder to sunscreen to food to television sets, all of which she sends overseas with Army soldiers and guardsmen being deployed from Fort Hood.

But getting companies, churches and civic organizations to contribute has gotten tougher, she says.

Curtis-Win says she suspects the public is weary of war. She also blames negative coverage of the war by the news media.

Everyday life

Local roofer Bill Johnson, 64, who early in the war oversaw a vigorous effort to put thousands of Bibles into the hands of soldiers being sent overseas and has mounted other troop-backing events, acknowledges times have changed for many Americans, including himself.

His Bible campaign has come to a temporary halt, he says, so that he can take care of an ailing family member. Plus, he says, the storms that battered much of McLennan County last month have kept his roofing business busy.

I think people are focusing on everyday life, he says, and unless something shakes them up, they don’t realize people are dying over there.

He vows his Bible campaign will resume. Certainly, the souvenir store he owns in Crawford, near President Bush’s ranch, makes its support for the war clear, complete with patriotic bumper stickers, busts of President Bush and an in-store memorial to Marine Lance Cpl. Louis Wayne Qualls, one of the war dead and the son of an acquaintance.

Maggie McCarthy, who helps oversee Waco’s Nonprofit Network, acknowledges that nonprofit organizations have plenty of missions on the local home front to keep them busy but says civic leaders continue to work hard to ensure that Waco Veterans Affairs Medical Center services are expanded to offer more mental health care for returning veterans.

Studies by the New England Journal of Medicine and the Pentagon say as many as one in six military personnel returning from Iraq may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder because of constant exposure to widespread violence.

Much of the interest here is what happens when they get back and have mental health needs, McCarthy says.

McLennan County Veterans Services Officer Bill Mahon, 55, former president of the McLennan County Veterans Association and a leader in efforts to expand Waco VA hospital services, says meaningful support for the troops can be found here and there. He names such local places as West Robinson Baptist Church, which he says has a lot of veterans, and VFW and American Legion posts, whose membership is older and patriotic. Some of these churches and posts send food and supplies to U.S. troops.

However, he says, public support for the war has dwindled.

It’s like a ballgame, he says. The first nine innings are great, but when you get to 16 innings, you get tired.

Daily reports of death and political instability, accounts of more bombings and now evidence of alleged massacres of Iraqi civilians by U.S. military personnel erode enthusiasm for the war and its aims, he says.

Not getting the full story

Some veterans from Iraq say the full story of what’s happening there isn’t getting out, such as U.S. efforts to help Iraqis stabilize their government and build schools and hospitals.

I believe what people see in the news isn’t the whole picture, says Carter, the Navy Seabee back in Waco after Iraq duty near the Syrian border. I wish people could sit down and talk with those who have been over there. They’d get a good picture of what’s being done and what the sacrifice is all about.

Curtis-Win agrees.

I work here seven days a week, she says of volunteer duties at Fort Hood, working with soldiers, some back from Iraq. I sit and listen to soldiers cry. I sit and listen to them talk about picking up body parts. I sit and listen to their concerns about health care. But it always gets back to the good they felt they were doing over there.


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