A Colonel Runs
Wives clamour for US troops return
Julian Borger reports from Hinesville in Georgia, where life is centred on the US Third Division
Saturday July 5, 2003
The Fourth of July is usually the biggest day on the calendar in Hinesville, Georgia. It is an army town, from one end to another, and patriotism is practically the local industry. The Stars and Stripes are the standard decoration all year round, but on Independence Day, they sprout from every tree, lawn and window box.
And when evening falls, much of Hinesville's 25,000 people decamps to Fort Stewart, the military base next door, for picnics and fireworks.
But this year, the martial pride has a bitter aftertaste. The red, white and blue bunting is interspersed with the fading yellow of ribbons left hanging for the soldiers still in Iraq.
They were supposed to be back home celebrating. Instead, yesterday's shootings in Balad made it more likely that their stay in Iraq will be prolonged.
"We had already made the 'Welcome home' banners, but we had to put them away in the closet. It was like being punched in the stomach," said Debbie Brigham. Her husband, Dennis, an army sergeant, has been gone since last September, leaving her with four children who are demanding constant attention now that the summer holidays have started.
"It's the worst post for that," she said. "There's nothing here to do with the children."
Most Hinesville residents frankly admit the town lives and dies with the Third Infantry Division. It was a mere spot on the map before the army decided to set up a training camp in the second world war, and the town almost expired the last time the troops went to fight in the Gulf.
With the "war on terror" gaining momentum and the US military budget reaching towards its cold war heights again, the military base is pumping over $2bn a year into the local economy.
On its roadside welcome signs, Hinesville proudly declares itself the "fastest growing town in south-eastern Georgia".
Around the old-fashioned calm of Main Street, with its brick courthouse, modest diners and lawyers' offices, neon strip malls have spread out in every direction around the base perimeter. But these days, the traffic is light and the chain restaurants lined up along the main roads are half-empty.
The Third Division was the first to leave for this Gulf war, sending one of its brigades out to the region as long ago as last September. It crossed into Iraq on the first day of the ground war, and it was the first to fight its way into downtown Baghdad.
Nowhere - probably including Baghdad itself - was the fall of Saddam's statue celebrated more than in Hinesville. It meant a ticket home for the troops; or at least, that is what people here thought it meant.
"They kept telling them that as soon as you get to Baghdad you would be going home," Mrs Brigham recalled angrily. "The way home is through Baghdad, they said."
By the last week in May, many of the soldiers had prepared their equipment and had sent emails saying they were on the way home, when the rising level of guerrilla attacks stopped the withdrawal dead.
"That week, it's good that no one lit a match, because this town was a powder keg," said Patrick Donahue, editor of the local paper, the Coastal Courier.
The army wives, normally a bulwark of stoicism, staged a near-mutiny. A colonel at Fort Stewart, who had been sent to soothe a meeting of 800 of them, had to be escorted out of the hall under a torrent of jeers and angry questions.
Tempers have subsided slightly since then, after the division's commander, Major General Buford Blount, said he hoped he could have the troops back. His message to the home front in the division's newspaper this week was headed reassuringly: "Morale, comfort of soldiers top priority".
"We are removing bad elements from the Falluja and Balad areas while assisting the local residents to take control of their own destiny," Gen Blount wrote, promising to continue to improve the soldiers' conditions "as long as we are here".
The Pentagon was declining yesterday to reveal which units had suffered casualties in Balad.
Much of Hinesville's frustration is now focused not so much on the generals or on Washington as on the Iraqis themselves.
In the eyes of the families, their loved ones are risking their lives on the other side of the world to liberate Iraq from oppression, but their sacrifice has not been recognised by its intended beneficiaries.
"I do feel some anger towards Iraqi people. We're just trying to help them," Mrs Brigham said. "But now I just want my husband home."
Amanda Sanchez, whose husband, PJ, drives a truck for the division, and who gave birth to her second son just as the ground war began, shared the sense of disillusion.
"I thought they [the Iraqis] would be more enthusiastic. I mean, who wouldn't want to live like Americans, to live in democracy, to send your children to school? I'm surprised at how naive the Iraqis are," Mrs Sanchez said.
"Who wouldn't want to have freedom? It's hard for me to understand that they don't grasp the concept."
Like most of the country, Hinesville's enthusiasm for the war has ebbed as a result of this perceived ingratitude and the sense of a threat that Iraq could become a "quagmire" guerrilla war.
The failure to find weapons of mass destruction counts for considerably less.
"I knew they wouldn't find any. We fooled around and gave them too much stinking time to hide them," said Scott Mortensen, who runs a coffee shop which has become a meeting place for army wives.
Word of God
He and his wife had come to Hinesville all the way from Seattle on divine directions - "God told us to pack up and go", he said. For the same reason, he has turned one wall of the cafe into a shrine for the absent warriors. Those who have been killed -the division has so far lost 35 - occupy pride of place at the top.
Despite the mounting frustration, Hinesville is not about to turn its back on its leaders.
One wife expressed anxiety about President George Bush's "bring them on" invitation to Iraqi guerrillas this week, but she stressed that she did not want her name mentioned.
"I support George Bush one hundred per cent," she said, almost with her next breath.
The ingrained patriotism of towns like Hinesville is not shaken easily. But Hinesville also feels the pain of a war that is refusing to end as neatly as was advertised.
"For the most part, it's immune," said Mr Donahue at the Coastal Courier.
"But," he added, "the longer the troops are over there, then the less immune it gets."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
refusing to kill