Letter from Fayetteville: Why this military town is having second thoughts

October 8, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to troops at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina December 14, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Keane

“You never know when something’s really going to end,” said one child whose father is a combat engineer. President Obama speaks at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville in 2011.
REUTERS/Chris Keane

After 13 years of war, life outside the gates of the United States’ largest military base has settled into a familiar ebb and flow.

Army paratroopers and commandos stationed at Fort Bragg periodically board transport planes bound for Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving spouses to handle the carpooling and holiday planning. Kids celebrate birthdays with one parent in the room the other watching from a computer screen somewhere out there. Crowds thin out at Little League games and restaurants sell fewer orders of chicken wings. When troops return, business picks back up.

Video: Writer Andy Sullivan in Fayetteville

So when President Barack Obama announced a new military campaign to contain Islamic radicals in Syria and Iraq several weeks ago, little seemed to change in this city of some 200,000 folks, just west of Interstate 95. On the night the President announced a new wave of airstrikes, TVs in the local sports bars were tuned to a football game between the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears. Another war? “I’m all for it,” said a recent enlistee, dressed in running shoes and shorts as he left a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant.

But behind the gung-ho, business-as-usual attitude, it’s not hard to detect a sense of weariness and frustration about the prospect of another open-ended conflict that could drag on for years. In that sense, this proudly pro-military town in the North Carolina flatlands isn’t so different from the American public as a whole, which the polls tell us, is leery of returning to a messy region of the world that already has claimed too much of the country’s blood and treasure.


It’s not uncommon in Fayetteville to hear of soldiers who have served multiple year-long tours of duty, returning again and again to guerilla-style wars with no clearly defined front lines. Some 5,000 troops from Fort Bragg are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan, even though that war long ago slipped off the front pages of U.S. newspapers. With one war over and another winding down, more soldiers are back in Fayetteville now than during the height of the deployments between 2008 and 2011. Still, President Obama has already sent 1,600 Special Operations commandos back to Iraq. Americans are flying helicopter missions (“boots in the air) and military leaders have hinted that the conflict could soon require more boots on the ground.

“Here we go again – here’s all these children without their daddies and mothers,” said Kathy Jensen, who represents several Fort Bragg neighborhoods on the Fayetteville city council. “It’s a new normal for us.”


Americans are leery, the polls tell us, of returning to a messy region of the world: Troops heading out from Fayetteville to deploy to Kuwait in 2003.
REUTERS/Ellen Ozier


Fort Bragg has dominated life between the Cape Fear River and the Sand Hills since 1941, when the Army scaled up a small post to train paratroopers, infantrymen and artillery units for World War Two. After the war, the camp became the permanent home of many of its airborne and special-operations units, which are responsible for everything from undercover work to training missions. Some 55,000 active-duty military and 21,000 civilian employees are now assigned there, and the base is home to more generals than any other region of the country outside Washington.

The surrounding region, once a sparsely settled forest of sandy soil and loblolly pine, now is a tangle of Waffle Houses, motorcycle dealerships and pawn shops. New suburban developments stretch far into the countryside.

There are certainly advantages to being a military mecca. The steady flow of federal dollars has shielded Fayetteville from the recession and other economic pressures. The region’s economy has grown by 80 percent since 2001, outpacing the rest of the state and the country as a whole. The military paid $1.4 billion to private-sector contractors in the region in 2012.

Jil McCarthy, who's husband is in the Military, at her home in Fayetteville

“I never cried in front of them,” said Jillian McCarthy referring to her children. “That would be for me to do in private.”
REUTERS/Chris Keane

The military presence has its downside as well. Good jobs outside the defense sector are scarce. When a health insurance company announced it was setting up a call center downtown, more than 1,000 people applied for 107 jobs.

And while the city has long since dispersed the tattoo parlors, strip clubs and seedy juke joints that saddled downtown Hay Street with the unwelcome nickname of “Fayettenam” in the 1960s, the appetites of a young, transient population still create problems. Sex trafficking has increased and the region now struggles with one of the most acute prescription-drug abuse problems in the country as military hospitals treat an influx of wounded soldiers and veterans. According to the Fayetteville Observer, the local Veterans Administration hospital prescribed narcotic painkillers to 48,000 patients in 2012, the most recent figures available, an increase of 4,100 percent in 11 years. (The VA hospital in Fayetteville also has the third longest wait time in the country.)


But for many here, the most distinctive aspect of life during wartime isn’t drugs or crime – it’s the families pulled apart by war.

Jillian McCarthy’s husband has deployed overseas six times, leaving her periodically to care for the couple’s two daughters on her own. As she shuttled the girls to school and soccer practice, she assured them their father would come home safely.

“I never cried in front of them,” said McCarthy, 42. “That would be for me to do in private.”

Now she wonders whether those long absences were for naught as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerges as the latest adversary in a region of deep-rooted and ancient hostilities. “This is a thousand-year-old battle there,” she said.

Steve Parker in his home office in Fayetteville, North Carolina September 26, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Keane

“Our special operations forces,” said Steve Parker, a Marine and Army veteran, “are tapped out.”
REUTERS/Chris Keane

Steve Parker has a different take: the U.S. and president Obama aren’t doing enough. Parker, age 49, spent the greater part of two decades in the Marines and the Army special operations. He walks gingerly these days, the legacy of two shattered hips from repeated parachute jumps. Sitting at the desk of his home office, surrounded by knives, combat gear and other mementos of his service, Parker explains that ruling out regular ground troops is a mistake. But even he worries that his friends still in the service are overworked at this point. “Our special operations forces,” he said, “are tapped out.”

There are other signals from Washington that worry the locals. Despite the recent uptick in military activity, the Obama administration still plans to reduce the size of the Army in coming years, and a budget-cutting Congress has agreed to hold the military to tight spending caps through the end of the decade. The spending cuts have many in Fayetteville wondering whether the military is compromising its ability to fight future conflicts.

In a field in the Sand Hills region west of Fort Bragg, Jim Lynch watched a black Labrador retriever sprint through a series of drills as it searched for homemade, or “improvised,” explosive devices. Though the Marines have deployed hundreds of his company’s bomb-sniffing dogs overseas, funding for the program is due to expire at the end of the year. If the military needs more dogs at that point, they won’t be ready for at least six months, he said. “If we go back into Iraq again to fight ISIS, we’re not going to have that capability – it’s gone,” said Lynch, a Special Forces Operations veteran who sports a handlebar mustache. “We understand budgeting, but with new threats on the horizon, IEDs are not going away.”

Students walk through the hallway during a class change at E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina September 26, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Roughly one in six students in Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High School has parents in the military. “A big thing in our house is prayer,” one student said.
REUTERS/Chris Keane


But it may be the children of Fayetteville who are bearing most of the burden of years of war. After all, they didn’t volunteer for the assignment.

I met a number of them in the brightly colored library at E.E. Smith High School, where roughly one out of six students has parents on active duty. Some are hoping to follow in their parents’ footsteps, readying applications for military academies like the Citadel and the Air Force Academy. That said, the nature of this war is confusing and worrisome. “Obama can say we’re going to end the war, and then something can come up like the whole ISIS situation. You never know when something’s really going to end,” said Amirah Latiff, 17, whose father, a combat engineer, missed seeing her off to her first prom when he was stationed in Afghanistan. “There’s always that fear in the back of your mind.”

Victoria Wilson, 16, agrees. Like many in Fayetteville, young and old, the fear and uncertainty are just part of the job description.

“The last thing you want to think about is your dad in a combat zone and having the possibility of him being injured or even dying,” said the high school senior, who is planning a career as a military doctor. “But if it’s going to benefit everybody … if that’s what we have to do, then by all means, OK.”
“A big thing in our house is prayer,” she added. “We do a lot of that.”


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Why go back when the politicians will just take our military victory and let the State Department turn it into a defeat and waste our sacrifices? Call me when you get some leadership in the Administration that is not criminally stupid and manifestly incompetent. This veteran won’t be holding his breath waiting for that.

Posted by AZWarrior | Report as abusive

One of the biggest complaints I have heard from my friends in the military is that they find it extremely difficult to get behind a leader they do not trust. And they do not trust the leaders in Washington.

Posted by rlm328 | Report as abusive

You can’t be serious! “Here’s all these children without their daddies and mothers” said Kathy Jenson……”You never know when something’s really going to end”……That’s what wars are like. If you join the ‘army’, that’s exactly what you’re joining up to do. That is, go and fight in wars. Hello, that’s what soldiers do. Nobody ever knows how long a war is going to take from beginning to end, or how many people might be killed, or how much it might cost.

Posted by zac48 | Report as abusive

I’m really not sure what people have signed up for? Do you sign up for the Marines or Army to not fight? Do you volunteer for Special Forces and just want to train? Why re-up after your 4 or 8 years if you don’t want to go?

This article is confusing. “Sitting at the desk of his home office, surrounded by knives, combat gear and other mementos of his service” is that why they sign up?

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

If you don’t want to fight, don’t join the military. Agreeing with the government’s war strategy is not your decision to make.

Posted by ouachita | Report as abusive

No offense, but soldiers know the score. Going to war is what soldiers exist for. Nothing else.

Don’t like the politics? Vote to change them. Don’t like putting up with going to war, leaving your family behind, not seeing your kids grow, etc.? More simple still; just go on civvie street and get a job like any other citizen because it’s not like anyone has been conscripted. In short, quit whining!


Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

Cutting back on DoD spending will have a minimal affect on the US’s ability to fight future conflicts. The spending cuts need to come at the operational level. Offices don’t need new furniture every 3 years. You don’t need TV’s in every waiting area.

Posted by LedZep56 | Report as abusive

There is no letter from Fayetteville. The ups and downs, the emotions, are all the same of any “military town” since the establishment of military bases. The gross, ineffective, opinion by the journalist, about “no defined front line,” is just that. There are only defined front lines in planned battles; there never have been by “occupying armies.” A nice piece, over all, painting a portrait that human beings make up the armed forces and that journalists are, well, just journalists that make their money off of someone one else’s grief.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

“Now she wonders whether those long absences were for naught as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerges as the latest adversary in a region of deep-rooted and ancient hostilities.”

The emergence of ISIS in Iraq has less to do with ancient hostilities than it does with President Obama disregarding the overwhelming advice of his national security staff to negotiate a continuing agreement with the Iraqi government to keep a residual U.S. security force in Iraq. He was all-too-eager to get the hell out of there rather than doing the right thing for our future security, even if it meant going against the opinion of his political base at the time. Yes, negotiating such an agreement would have been difficult, but a wealth of evidence indicates that Obama didn’t even want to try.

My son served in Afghanistan and returned home safely, but had he served in Iraq, I too would be wondering whether his and our family’s sacrifice was in vain — given what has happened in Iraq since Obama “ended the war in Iraq” as he proudly claimed over and over during the 2012 presidential campaign. Seems to me that Obama chose short-term political expediency over the long-term security needs of the U.S., and that is being borne out now as ISIS continues their onslaught in Iraq and Syria. THAT is what’s on the minds of many military families these days.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

Why doesn’t the Muslim world bear the burden of the conflict with radical Islam and terrorism? It seems we’re little more than unpaid mercenaries to keep, such as it is, the status quo.

Posted by Redford | Report as abusive

Boo hoo. We want to get paid by the government, from taxpayer dollars, to be in the military, but we don’t want to do any actual fighting.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

Maybe these people should get different jobs, like fixing our crumbling infrastructure or teaching children.

What if they had a war and nobody came?

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

This article describes the duty and sacrifice that comes along with joining the Military. Having been a Marine, I know. In the best of times we train, we practice, and we prepare. We go home almost every night. In the time of conflict we take out the equipment that we have used in training and we go to he trouble. Yes, it is hard. Yes, we may not come back whole or even alive. That is the choice we made. The good and bad are with every choice. Our families may feel the stress and many marriages fail because of the separation and anxiety. That is the reason that when we need to go, we want to go with a clear strategy to win. Politician terms like “degrade” or “contain” are an invitation to throw your life away without gaining a thing for your country. We follow the orders of the Commander in Chief. We would like to be treated better than pawns to be sacrificed. No one has ever in the history of conflict send overwhelming power against an enemy and lost. It even saves lives on the opposing side. The conflict is over quickly and the destruction is limited to what was needed to convince the opponent of their loosing position.

Posted by DennisVictor223 | Report as abusive

We are track to get involved in killing stooges and not the root of a violent culture with incompetent local allies (somewhat Vietnam in Kennedy’s time). The root course of the Islamic militants are their clergy and money bags and such movements have been around in the Middle East as lest as long as Islam. Unless we chose change their core ideas by long occupation and force this is not going come out too good.

In Europe the religious wars ended only after heavy losses in things the Thirty Years War made the ideas behind religious war unpopular. Therefore, we make sure all the militants who want to kill other militants have a large equal supply of old weapons suitable terrorizing each other and the locals.

Two, we should target militant Clergy and their schools and pulpits. As far as money bags besides the religious militant rich, there are those who would benefit a radical Islamic society. Number one is those that owe money to Western style banks (big land owners tend to have big loans), Islam forbids interest. Also others like makers Islamic women’s dress, people with degrees in Islamic law, organization likely to receive forced charity.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

The current number of US casualties in Afghanistan for 2014 is 48. “Some 5,000 troops from Fort Bragg are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan” The latest “in support of Operation Enduring Freedom” Maj. Jonathan D. Walker, 44, of Merriam, Kansas, died Oct. 1, in Doha, Qatar, of a non-combat related incident at Camp As Sayliyah. The incident is under investigation. This is an blatant anti war opinion piece by Andy Sullivan. One dimensional and one sided. That is My opinion.

Posted by DennisVictor223 | Report as abusive

Why are they in the military if they don’t like to serve? Nobody has forced them.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

I’m over 60 and I can attest that we have invading and occupying countries nearly the entire time. Singlehanded lthe military have killed close to 5 million people, a lot of them with napalm. Much of the carnage of the last 25 years has its roots in securing oil and propping up the monarchies of the Persian gulf. It’s not very difficult to see how we have affected people who don’t benefit from oil revenue. Americans are tired of it, and tired of paying for it. If we need to develop and secure alternate sources of oil let’s just do it and pay for it directly. I’ve completely lost faith in our security and military apparatus, who often seem to be in their businesses for their own benefit, first and foremost.

Posted by shillingfarmer | Report as abusive

Then quit signing up. Force a draft and the political winds will change when the general public has to send their kids to fight more political wars.

By signing up for military service, you are giving the politicians a very good deal. They avoid the need for draft, and you get dead, hurt, divorced, displaced, or all of the above. So stop.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I grew up in a military family. I was 30 when my Dad retired. I, and my brother, did not join the mitary. 36 years is enough for one family. We have been at war with someone, it seems, all of my life. Why are we always fighting, or getting ready to fight all the time.? Why?

Posted by Cnileolman | Report as abusive

No draft, no forced military service…so why are they in the military? Ohhh, they signed up willingly to do it. What is happening to the USA?!?

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

The question is what are we fighting for? People enlist to protect they homeland, the United States of America. What did Iraq or Syria ever do to us? What are are we doing there? If the issue was protection of our “allies,” with such allies who need enemy, perhaps it’s time they take care of their own problems. We have spilled enough blood and wastes enough money on their reckless expansionist adventures.

Posted by Fric | Report as abusive

these folks are absolutely correct in questioning what the heck is going on.

you do all know that the Korean War aka “Police Action” is not yet at an end?

the politicians of today think one wins wars by winning over the hearts and minds of religious nut cases that quite firmly believe all the infidels must die. the current theory of war winning may not actually work out.

was there no PSTD in WWI? no PSTD in WW2? yes, but perhaps not a ‘post’ thing – in those wars there were bad guys and good guys and ‘lines’ and ‘assaults’

this is no longer true. there are no more identifiable bad guys. a woman starts shooting at you with an AK47 and you have to radio headquarters to get permission to return fire. everyone and anyone on any street in any circumstance is likely to kill you. and there’s a question about stress?

there’s only one solution. put multi-millions boots on the ground, sweep through and kill anything that moves. oh! the humanity wailing….? take that up with the Dresden residents.

there’s a war or there’s a Snickers bar contest. we’re not taking a viable approach and the military towns / population is paying the price.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

I have seen it with my own eyes as I serviced the military via the private sector. Lot’s of benefits no doubt, and incredible waste for example thousands of taxpayer dollars spent to move your family across town so they can save $20.00 a month in rent, and then moved back again for the same reason. Then when it’s time to pay up through deployment out come the tears. While at the same time I have seen those willing to take the extra deployments just to escape the household. Most of all though the worst is the mentality of the Betrayus counter insurgency doctrine, as I believe this is contra indicated to war and absolutely ridiculous, it’s no wonder the ones that do sign up have an unrealistic view of what is expected in return.

Posted by DetailsDetails | Report as abusive

AlkalineState, you bring up a good point that by their signing up, the government avoids a draft. Though this begs the question, if they stop signing up as you suggest, and the government brings back the draft, wouldn’t that then put you or those you know and love at risk of being drafted? Then let’s see what you have to say about those serving in the military.

Show a little gratitude for those that make it so you’re not the cat leaving their family behind.

Posted by navyseal3341 | Report as abusive

Everyone saying “if they don’t want to fight, then stop joining” needs to just shut up and think a moment.

The purpose of the military is NOT to continuously fight everything at everytime while America exists. It’s not to go from war to war and conflict to conflict and to continually feed the meatgrinder. If that’s what you really think your taxpayer dollars are supposed to be going toward, then you are misguided or being disingenuous.

Your taxpayer dollars going to the military and defense are supposed to pay for our collective SECURITY. Not to continuously fight. That’s a huge waste.

The cost of the military is to find, train, and keep the best and brightest that have a desire to serve, lead, and win in combat, and match them up with the very best in training and technology, so that when the time comes and we need them, we have NOTHING to worry about.

If you are worried about our servicemembers ‘collecting a paycheck,’ maybe you should be worried about them being thrown into more and more vague wars, multiple times due to poor vision, planning, and plain ol’ listening ability at the White House, to the point where our best, the ones we need to be able to RELY on, are broken down after more than a decade of continuous visceral bloodshed. If you think that doesn’t wear on a person than you need to work on your thinking skills.

And the worst part of it all is that we live in a time where we need a ready, fresh, alert military more than ever – all this crap going on in Syria, Lebanon, Mexico, etc., not to mention all the potential belligerents ready and capable of fighting a near-peer conventional war such as Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China… and we’re too busy shrinking our military and getting ready to send it BACK to an enemy that we created because our President was so focused on making a political statement with Iraq against all advice to the contrary…

It’s like someone buying a racehorse and making it race every single day of the year and then complaining that its tired when the Kentucky Derby rolls around.

Posted by outlawsix | Report as abusive


Posted by outlawsix | Report as abusive

It’s unlikely they will ever fight a war actually defending the US. Instead it will always be US (political, corporate or both) interests. IF that’s not a reason you’re interested in don’t join. Spend time with your family instead.

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive

The military has generally recruited from the rural and lower income area’s and of course career military families, in the end a closed society that does not really represent the populace. The founders were very big on BOTH political s and military to, briefly come and server nation then go home, both of which has not happened, to the detrment of the nation. Bush-Cheney et al when they started some excellent propaganda programs on how we would take out SH, “free Iraq”, the VERY FIRST item pushed to public BIG TIME, we will NOT, repeat NOT need a draft. War will only last 6 months, flowers will be thrown at feet of soldiers, Iraq Oil money will pay for it But KEY issue was “No draft will be needed or happen”. For first time in our history a major war, no draft and even better yet NO tax for war and no one asked why????

So we beat the drums, flew the flags, even has “song for the war” and other simply great propaganda that even Gobbels would have admired, underlying issue, “no draft” and in truth, those who were the most “Patriotic” were the least endangered, physically or economically by the “War”. It was even “Cute” when our $400K smart bomb, took out a $2K truck as the Generals laughed at screen images.So another war based on lies, as was NAM, in fact both had religious basis, only this time no draftees or their parents questioning what was going on as “6 months” ground on, and AFG looked like a permanent war. No taxes, no draft so all was well.

We used the Guard as if it were active duty, and no one said a word abut four or five combat tours, spending at a billion/week, none of which happened before. So since no impact at home, little Johnny (and Mary? as big push for women to serve as not enough well qualified males) no new taxes or even budget items for war, contractors doing work once assigned to military, as Army/Marines needed every combat troops it could find, not cooks, maintenance, or logistics, etc types since lobbyists got lucritive contractors, even in war zone, bizarrely private (very costly) “Security people” (as Army not qualified???) Everyone, even the “troops” made money and no one cared they were simply sent back time after time, even when wounded, heal up and go back!

The BIG lesson Pentagon, DOD contractors and elected learned from NAM, and appears only one as we made same ole NAM errors again, but BIG one was NO DRAFT. They learned that those pesky draftees, who fought as well as Reg Army, were mostly better educated, tended to speak out of truths as they had not “career” worries. The reality of NAM was finally, when deferments cut to nearly non, and middle class got into it, the protests started, the Pols suddenly found they “did NOT support this war” etc, Nor did the “people”. Even the media got dovish.

So the NAM which in truth is remarkably similar to Mid East messes, we left, as once the public, the nation get “involved”. reality is end product. The flags stopped waving, the Sunshine patriots worried they might end up warriors, perhaps new taxes, AKA reality for a nation, not a reality as in 1/2% now days carried the load. We must note the “New USA Patriots” were provenly shaken to their bones when a while back Rep Rangle dared to suggest bring back draft. Result in “Patriotic let’s get them guys” was Doc’s offices were flooded with parents-kids seeking some sort of “history of medical issue(s).

So Reg Military and Guard, get used to it, repeated tours assure no shortage, you have well paying jobs, even marry and great retirements. Sorry if you get shot at or hit, and family separations etc, well encourage kids to join. You see the NEW USA which kind of loves it little wars, even TV full of X Seals, Spec Forces etc, well they much prefer to wave there little imported flags, cheer the elected chicken hawks and tsk tsk, over how VA and others treat you (shade of NAM Agent Orange etc again). This nation is now mostly undereducated, sunshine patriots who elect same. You can bet good odds this nation, DOD. DOD Contractors, lobbyists, elected will assure the “people” you will not fight any wars, nor be taxed, with the unstated premise of “See people, no draft/taxes that kind of makes wars easy to start, doesn’t it? Sorry Reg Military, but until we dare to draft/tax, you are expendable as needed and lots of good profits for the nation, and no new taxes…

Posted by chuck2 | Report as abusive

We are in a constant state of low-grade war and the defense contractors like it that way. Eisenhower warned us about this 60 years ago. So get used to it or do something about it. For starters, quit signing up for military service if you don’t like being deployed. That’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“I thought enlisting would be like Xbox Call of Duty. I could maybe do it from my mom’s basement.”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Eisenhower was right when he warned of the Military Industrial Complex taking over our once great nation. The time is now to return this nation to the principles upon which it was founded – NO foreign entanglements!!!

Posted by phil5280 | Report as abusive

“According to the Fayetteville Observer, the local Veterans Administration hospital prescribed narcotic painkillers to 48,000 patients in 2012″

And how many of them were prescribed medicinal marijuana before being prescribed narcotics? The answer is zero. How many people have gotten addicted to narcotics and died from overdoses as a result?

Posted by newageblues | Report as abusive