Texans turn against Bush's war

Disillusionment with Iraq is smoldering even in the heart of Bush country, where military families have paid a heavy price.

Published September 20, 2007 11:01AM (EDT)

As George W. Bush approaches his final year in office saddled with an unpopular war, the shifting winds of public opinion have reached even the wide open spaces of Bush country. More and more Texans appear disillusioned with the war in Iraq and with the man who was once their widely popular governor, though some can still seem reluctant to talk about it.

"The truth is, folks in Texas are hurting," says Big Bo Kern, standing behind the counter at the Luckenbach General Store, a fixture of this small but well-known Texas crossroads. "They probably won't tell you that, because we supported Bush and stood up for him. Back in the day you couldn't swing a dead cat around here without hitting one of those 'W' stickers. But feelings around here started to change about a year ago, when guys started going back to Iraq for their third deployment."

The town of Luckenbach, founded in 1849 and made famous a generation ago by the hit song from "Waylon and Willie," still hosts live cowboy bands on weekends and can seem timeless. But over the past couple of years, autographed photos of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker tacked to the walls of the general store have been joined by snapshots of young servicemen in Iraq, holding up their Luckenbach T-shirts. "We get young guys coming through here, on leave or on their way back to Fort Hood for their next deployment, so I give them a hat or a T-shirt and ask them to send me a photo back," says Kern, 45, an Army veteran originally from the nearby town of Sisterdale. "We also get soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The hospital takes them out on trips sometimes. They come in and most of them are horribly burned, some missing arms or legs. I give them a T-shirt or a hat," Kern says. "It breaks your heart to see them."

Texas has paid a price for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More Texans than people from any other state have served in those wars. From September 2001 through July 2007, 171,335 active-duty service members and 23,906 National Guard troops and reservists from Texas have been deployed with Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, according to data provided to Salon by the Department of Defense. (The numbers account for every tour of duty served by every soldier.) As of July 31, Texans represented 35,015 active-duty service members and 2,649 Reserve troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for more than 14 percent of total forces stationed in those countries. (Approximately 264,000 Americans were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan as of July 31, according to the Defense Department figures.) As of Sept. 17, 378 Texans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 2,200 wounded. Only California has seen a greater total number of deaths, with 447 service members killed.

Many Texans have deployed from Fort Hood, the Army's largest base with more than 44,000 personnel. Sprawling across hundreds of square miles of Texas Hill Country between Austin and Waco, Fort Hood is home to the 1st Cavalry Division and the 4th Infantry Division, which have been in constant rotation to Iraq since the 2003 invasion. At a benefit concert in nearby Killeen on a recent Thursday night, Marissa Sousa, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran, staffed a table for the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, offering brochures on veterans' health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I see some of these guys and I know they're back from Iraq," says Sousa, who retired as a staff sergeant from a unit based at Fort Hood, and whose fiancé is currently stationed with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad. "They start circling my table and I can see they want to talk to someone, but it's difficult to do. Morale is down. A lot of them are only going back again for their buddies, not for patriotism or their president. They're doing it because they have to, and because they would feel guilty about staying behind."

Speaking freely around Fort Hood about the war is difficult, Sousa says, because "Texans are very patriotic and very proud of their state. For a lot of people around here, Bush is like the president of Texas, and supporting the soldiers means supporting Bush."

But elsewhere in Texas Bush has become a figure that former supporters say they no longer recognize. "I was very enthusiastic for Bush when he first ran, embarrassingly so looking back now," says Paul Burka, executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine. A political independent who has covered Texas politics for 30 years, Burka twice voted for Bush for president. "Early on his approval rating in Texas was around 80 percent, and he did well with Democrats as well as Republicans and independents. Now there's widespread disappointment he hasn't led the country in the same way he led Texas. To a lot of us he doesn't look like the same person he was as governor. I would say it's been an enormous disappointment."

Burka's sentiments bring to mind a public renunciation in Austin last April by Matthew Dowd, a Texas native and once a Democratic pollster who helped Bush win both presidential elections. After leaving Washington, Dowd, in an interview with the New York Times, was critical of Bush's leadership and called for a withdrawal from Iraq.

Iraq is the No. 1 issue on the minds of Texans, according to a recent Lyceum poll sponsored by the University of Texas. (The poll asked open-ended questions about statewide issues of concern, but did not track positive or negative opinion on the war.) Yet, a poll in July by Survey USA found that Bush's approval rating in his home state stood at 41 percent, with 57 percent disapproving, significantly better than Bush's national numbers. (A national poll by Newsweek in July, for example, found Bush's approval rating at 26 percent, with 65 percent disapproving.)

Indeed, it can be difficult to pinpoint where people's feelings about the war, and the president, collide and diverge. "Support for Bush was always less about his stated political beliefs than the idea that he was their guy, a native son," says James Henson, a University of Texas public policy professor who helped direct the Lyceum poll. "I used to ask Democrats who voted for him why, and they'd say, 'He's from Texas.' There's a strong sense of cultural identity here -- a cliché about Texas that has a lot of truth to it. But finding people now who say they voted for Bush, at least in Austin, is like trying to find people who voted for Nixon in his 1972 landslide a few years after the fact," Henson says. "No one wants to talk about it," he adds. "The criticism here is much more muted than in the rest of the country."

Geoffrey Wawro, a professor of military history at the University of North Texas in Denton, says he has seen no waning of support for Bush, or the war, at least in the Dallas area. "You see Bush stickers all over here," says Wawro. "This is a very Republican place, and people support the war because they support their president, and vice versa."

But Perry Jeffries, 46, a former first sergeant who served with the 1-10 Cavalry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, says he sees a growing divide around Fort Hood between support for the war and support for Bush. "Many, many people here are connected in some way to deployed soldiers, and no matter what they may feel they want to support the troops," says Jeffries, a native of Waco who retired from the Army in 2004 and is also a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But if you feel people out about what they think individually, it's far from a consensus," he says.

As a member of a Fort Hood honor guard, Jeffries has attended the funerals of 20 service members from Texas killed in the war. "Most of the women I work with, who all have husbands who have been deployed, are done with this war -- they don't think their husbands should have to go back again for something that to them looks dumb now. The soldiers signed up to do a job, and they're going to do what they're ordered, but you'll see guys now who come back on leave or on rotation and you know they don't want to go back."

Jeffries now manages volunteer recruitment for a private contractor that operates a blood donor program in Fort Hood that supplies military hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he began his civilian job, Jeffries began driving his pickup truck on post with a bumper sticker reading "George Bush: American Errorist." He says he was surprised by the response he got. "I only had one person to tell me that I should take it off, but dozens of people asked me, 'You haven't gotten in trouble for that?'" People were concerned his truck might be vandalized, Jeffries says, but "they didn't have a problem with the message."

Yet, while recruitment has lagged elsewhere in the nation, the Army continues to surpass its recruiting goals in Texas. By September, the Texas Army National Guard had already met its enlistment goal of 3,300 recruits for 2007, signing up 4,195 new members, according to Lt. Col. Ron McLaurin, the recruiting and retention commander of the Texas Guard. The total number of its soldiers, or "end strength," has reached 18,765 (accounting for both new-enlistee and retention numbers), surpassing the 2007 goal by more than 1,100 soldiers. To date, Texas has sent more Guard soldiers to Iraq per capita than any other state.

"Texas has a long military history, and it's part of the culture here to support it," says Wawro.

Burka, the Texas Monthly editor, sizes up Bush's standing in Texas in other ways. He points to the recent controversy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where faculty members signed a letter of protest against locating a Bush presidential library on campus, and the closing of most of the Bush gift shops in Crawford, Texas, where even activist mother Cindy Sheehan has left town. "The elite opinion makers here were really taken aback when [Bush] seemed to completely ignore the advice [on the war] of James Baker, who is very respected in this state," adds Burka.

Then there are the photographs of Texas service members, the latest casualties in Iraq, that show up regularly in the morning papers. Recently it was Cpl. Thomas L. Hilbert, of Venus, Texas, a small town 30 miles south of Dallas. Hilbert, 20, and two other soldiers serving with the 9th Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, died after their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device on Sept. 6. Hilbert's sister, BillieJo Alexander, told the El Paso Times that her brother had already reserved a hotel room in Las Vegas to celebrate his 21st birthday with his family in January. "We were very close," she said. "He wanted to make something of himself, something he could be proud of." His parents, Tom and Theresa Hilbert, said they wanted their son remembered as a soldier and a hero who loved the Army. He had planned to reenlist, they said.

In April, Lt. Phillip Neel's photograph appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. A West Pointer who graduated from Fredericksburg High School in 1998 and was stationed at Fort Hood with the 1st Cavalry Division, Neel, 27, was killed in a grenade attack in Iraq's Diyala province on Easter Sunday. A month before, he had come home to the Hill Country on a two-week leave. His obituary in the Statesman hinted at the trepidation many soldiers have felt about returning to Iraq, saying that Neel "had prayed for his enemies and cried at the dinner table for the souls of his soldiers" on his last night before returning to duty.

In an interview with Salon, Neel's sister, Kelly Foster, deflected any questions about the Neel family's opinions of the war. "He felt like something might happen when he went back this time, but he loved being a soldier and was very proud to serve his country," said Foster. "He was a great brother and we don't want to bring any politics into mourning his loss."

Kristy Kruger, a singer-songwriter from Dallas whose brother, Lt. Col. Eric Kruger, died in an IED attack in Baghdad last November, is equally reluctant to bring up politics when talking about her brother. To honor his birthday last January, she held a free show for family and friends at a Dallas coffee shop. Afterward, she decided to take her show on the road. "I get up onstage and say, Hey, I'm Kristy, I lost my brother in Iraq, then play songs, tell jokes and tell stories about him," says Kruger, whose audiences have included peace activists as well as soldiers back home from Iraq. "Folks have come up who don't know anyone who's over there and just want to thank me for giving a face to a soldier. I've connected with strangers in a way that I wouldn't have imagined."

Sousa of IAVA plans to stay in Killeen, awaiting her fiancé's return from Iraq, and continuing her work on behalf of vets while she pursues a degree in communications at nearby Tarleton State University. This part of Texas is not a great place to be if you're having doubts about the war, she says. "People tiptoe around it." But, she adds, "I feel I can help people here who are struggling with what they went through in Iraq. I think it's important for soldiers at Fort Hood to have someone to talk to who's been there. It's difficult when you think you go for some good reason -- defending freedom, 9/11, helping the Iraqi people -- and it turns out to not be the great cause that you thought."

Additional reporting by Erin Renzas.

By Bill Sasser

Bill Sasser is a writer based in New Orleans.

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Afghanistan George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Texas U.s. Military