Up Front: June 2011

Soldier on

Thirty minutes, they said. “Get your combat gear and be on the airplane at Pope” — the Air Force base next door to Fort Bragg. Where are we going? “Top secret.” How long will we be gone? “We don’t know.” What can I tell my wife? “Nothing.” In the mid-’60s, I was an Army enlisted man, armed with a notebook, camera and a .45 pistol that I couldn’t have hit my foot with, on a C-130 full of paratroopers bound for somewhere I knew nothing about.

The Dominican Republic incursion was war lite, but it was the first in a new generation of conflicts, less defined even than Korea, on a C-130 full of paratroopers, a mere prelude to Vietnam and absent the clear, unifying enemies of World War II. I didn’t know why I was there, only that people were shooting at me. I was too terrified to realize it, but the implications for North Carolina of my ambivalence — and that of thousands of others — were profound.

In the years to come, as we plunged deeper into Vietnam, many, civilians and politicians alike, couldn’t separate their scorn for the war from those who fought in it. I had no trouble. I remember the sobs of Mattie, my landlady’s daughter, the night the chaplain came. Her husband, a helicopter door gunner, was among the first to die. Gradually, across North Carolina, the Cold War’s grudging out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude toward the military turned into open resentment. They drafted sons and sent back bodies.

Conscription ended in the ’70s, but for the next decade and a half, the bitter taste lingered. Politicians opposed expansions at Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and other bases. Complaints soared about noisy jet fighters at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. GIs were ordered not to wear combat fatigues off base because it offended civilians.

The resentment was shortsighted, and the state was shooting itself in the foot with better aim than I had with my .45. When war in the Persian Gulf broke out in 1991, tens of thousands of North Carolina-based service men and women were shipped out overnight. Result: $1.2 billion in red ink in the state budget and a frantic scramble to make ends meet. Awareness of the military’s role in Tar Heel business began to grow, not just in Eastern North Carolina where the bases are, but in far-flung reaches like the 23 counties of AdvantageWest, where, by the middle ’90s, more than 3,000 military-related jobs were bringing home a $100 million-plus annual payroll.

The administrations of Tar Heel governors began warming to the military in the ’90s, when a wave of base closings swept the country, and terrorist attacks in 2001 ignited a public love affair with the military. But the state’s passion really exploded in 2005.

When I was stationed at Fort Bragg, paratroopers lived in fear of tangled lines that sent you plunging to earth with a useless, unopened canopy streaming above you. “Beautiful streamer, open for me,” we sang as Stephen Collins Foster cringed in his grave, “blue sky above me but no canopy …” North Carolina’s streamer came six years ago when, after a decade of threats, the Congressional Base Realignment and Closure Commission began making noises about closing scores of bases nationwide. No wonder. A few weeks ago, I was talking to people at the N.C. Department of Commerce. They told me the military now contributes close to 10% of the state’s economy and employs, directly or indirectly, about a half-million North Carolinians.

I thought about that one morning recently. I was walking along the street in Spring Lake where I lived as a soldier. It hasn’t changed in four decades, still as poor and seamy as ever, but GIs now wear their desert-camo fatigues to town. Nobody complains.