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.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Hugh R. Overholt, who practices law in nearby New Bern, describes himself as a strong supporter of Jones who “has some concerns” about setting a fixed date for withdrawing from Iraq.
But Overholt, a former judge advocate general of the Army, said he was concerned about what the fight had been doing to the military, both the reserves and the active-duty force.
“I’m very concerned about our force,” he said. The administration should do what’s required and “get it over as soon as possible.”
The signs of anxiety in North Carolina’s military heartland come at a time when national polls suggest that more Americans are turning against the war as the insurgency flares and costs to taxpayers show little sign of abating.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Congress that has been reluctant to challenge the administration on the war is suddenly pressing for answers. Jones was joined last week by a bipartisan group in favor of a proposal that would require the White House to submit a plan for withdrawal by the end of the year and to begin troop reductions by October 2006.
In some ways, Jones’ own history shows what makes the issue so tough for people in his district.
The son of a 14-term House member, Jones has built his congressional career in large part on advocacy for the military. He voted to authorize the war, displays pictures of the dead outside his Capitol Hill office, and has written condolence letters to the families of hundreds of service members. The anguish of the families was a major reason he turned against the war.
“After 2 1/2 years, it’s right to take a fresh look,” he told reporters Thursday. “We have a right to ask, ‘What are the goals?’ ”
The doubts are part of the discussion in other parts of Jones’ district, including the resorts on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, an area that includes many wealthy areas and newcomers from the North. Sometimes, arguments here head in a different direction.
Jack Ubert, a retiree from Amityville, N.Y., who owns a home on the beach in well-off Emerald Island, N.C., admires Jones for “taking a pretty tough stance.” Yet he fears that in the end the United States will “probably not win anything” from the Iraq fight -- “like in Vietnam.”
“Saddam deserves whatever he gets,” said Ubert, but added: “I was never sure why we had to go in there and dictate to them. It’s just like with nuclear weapons: We think we’re the only ones who should have them. We want to make all the rules.”
The debate is intensifying in North Carolina, as it is in other parts of the country.
“Members are hearing more from people who are patriotic and really want to see this thing turn out right, but are worried about how long it’s going to go on,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). “They don’t see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some congressional strategists said that while they still didn’t expect large numbers of Republicans to break with the president over the war, there was a palpable nervousness as members looked to next year’s midterm elections and worried that opinion might be shifting.
Lawmakers want the administration to lay out specific goals they can point to as a way to reassure uneasy constituents, said one Republican strategist.
“You’re hearing from some members, ‘We don’t know what these [upcoming] milestones and markers are,’ ” said David Winston, a GOP pollster who advised the congressional Republican leader. What they are seeking is “not so much an exit strategy, but the sequence of things that are going to move us closer to safety and security.”
While the public’s deepening pessimism is beyond dispute, it is not clear whether the country has reached a turning point, as it did with the Vietnam War in 1968.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said polls were showing that people were paying close attention to developments in Iraq, and that the number of people who preferred withdrawal was steadily rising.
“What I see in Iraq is a steady drip, drip, drip of eroding support for the war as the casualties mount and the instability continues,” Kohut said.
Yet he noted that Pew research showed that 52% said the troops should stay, and he said the polls could still move in a more favorable direction. Other polls are more pessimistic.
“I don’t think opinion is entrenched,” Kohut said. “There is still a public capacity to rethink Iraq.”
In North Carolina, public opinion is anything but entrenched. Andrew deGrandpre, city editor of the Daily News of Jacksonville, said that although the city’s bonds with the military made it distinctive, the sentiments resembled the uneasy national conversation.
“I think deep down this place is a lot like any other in America, and people have been debating the war and the human cost that’s being paid,” DeGrandpre said. “Nobody wants to back out ... but these questions are out there.”
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.