FAYETTEVILLE--During wartime, life changes around this Army town that is home to Fort Bragg, the nation's largest Army post. In the maternity ward at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center, labor and delivery nurse Beth Pratt sees a lot of mothers going it alone.
"I see a lot of women having babies without their husbands," Pratt said last Saturday, just minutes after she did one of the hardest things of her life. A military wife, Pratt stood before more than 1,000 people and spoke out against the Iraq war, where her husband is serving. Pratt, a petite 34-year-old with short, straight brown hair, was booed by counter-protesters when she stepped up to the microphone at Rowan Park.
"Since he left, I don't watch the news or read the newspaper," Pratt told the crowd in a demonstration that marked the first anniversary of the start of the war. "I don't like to hear about soldiers being killed or injured. That could be my husband... Ending this war and bringing them all home safely would be the best form of support that I can see."
The news all military families dread is what Elaine Johnson received last November when she was told her 22-year-old son, Specialist Darius T. Jennings, died when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
Johnson met President Bush and told him she was against the war. She wore a T-shirt with her son's picture on it and the words, "Now serving in Heaven."
"President Bush was in my hometown when my son was laying in the morgue," Johnson told the crowd. "He did not call me. He did not visit."
Later, Johnson, of Cordova, S.C., met Bush at a memorial service for fallen soldiers at Fort Carson, Colo.
"Me and him weren't on the same page," Johnson said. "I didn't agree with the war. He agrees with the war. We understood each other. He knew where I was coming from. I knew where he was coming from."
Like Pratt and many of the military family members who participated in the march and rally, Johnson said her views are not pacifist--and they're not politically motivated.
"I support the troops," she said, "and I don't support the war, and I've got to continue to speak out until the last soldier gets back over here from that war."
The rally, which was opposed by more than 100 counter-demonstrators, made for an odd juxtaposition. Those marching against the war--most of whom had no family members serving in the war--were calling for the troops to come home. The counter-protesters--many of whom had loved ones in harm's way--were protesting in favor of a war that appears to have no end in sight. The counter-protesters refused to buy the argument that calling for an end to the war was supporting the troops. Glenda and George Butterfly have a son-in-law serving in Afghanistan. The couple held a hand-lettered sign that read: "Support Our Troops."
"I just believe that if we're going to be in a war, we ought to support our troops," Glenda said. "If it's got to be war then we ought to support them."
Said George, an Air Force veteran: "You've got to finish what you start. We're doing a lot of good things. People forget that war is not all bad. Good things come of war. There's a lot of rebuilding going on. There's a lot of money being funneled in there.
"If it adds stability and security to the United States," he said, "we need to stay there. We need to find the guy that did 9-11."
Among the signs being held by the counter demonstrators were: "No Surrender" and "Pacifists are the Parasites of Freedom."
As the marchers passed by along Hay Street, Brenda Fortson pointed to a "No More Blood For Oil" sign that was being carried by a marcher.
"It wasn't about oil," said Fortson, whose husband is serving in Baghdad. "They're attacking our homeland. We're not supposed to allow this to happen."
When asked if there was a connection between Sept. 11 and Iraq, Fortson replied: "This is something that should have been handled 10 years ago, and now somebody has stepped up to take care of business. We cannot live in terror. We have terrorism going on. Somebody has got to step up to the plate. It's coming home now. This can't happen. We're a land of freedom. They're over there fighting for these people's freedom. Freedom isn't free."
Nationally known Vietnam veteran Ted Sampley of Kinston, who has started a "Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry" campaign, was also standing along Hay Street.
"I think in the long term they're giving aid and comfort to Iraqis," Sampley said. "The Muslims over there, they want to kill civilians all over the world. I think they're giving aid and comfort to them."
Clyde Vaughan is state director of the veterans' motorcycle club, Rolling Thunder. A veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, Vaughan, decked out in black leather, also has three sons who have served in Iraq.
"We just don't believe in what this particular group that's there believes in," said Vaughan, who joined other counter-protesters across the street from Rowan Park. "They had no business coming to Fayetteville, to a town that fully supports our troops, and hold this type of demonstration.
"We believe that they are being disrespectful to all the guys in the 82nd (Airborne Division) who have to be over there right now."
Vaughan, who said he usually votes Democratic, said he believes Bush "did what he thought was right at the time and now we're committed to it so we've got to finish it."
Retired Army man, Dan Barton agreed with Vaughan. "War is a terrible thing, but once we've started the war and that's our nation's policy, you don't do these stupid peace marches because that helps the enemy; it gives credence to their cause."
Barton said people should vote and write letters to their legislators, but not protest during wartime. He also said that being "against George Bush" was the number one cause of the peace activists.
While some anti-Bush sentiment was expressed on signs and T-shirts, the anti-Kerry sentiment was far greater on the other side as many counter protesters sported large "Stop Hanoi John Kerry" buttons.
Longtime Raleigh peace activist Cy King, a World War II veteran, said he backs Kerry, but he has also given money to the Kucinich campaign because he wants Kucinich's message to be heard at the Democratic convention.
King said the Iraq war is "a terrible mistake." As a combat veteran, King, 81, knows firsthand the horror of war, and he doesn't want to see others go through it.
"War is not the answer," he said. "We've got to find other ways to live together in this world."
On the other end of the age spectrum was 16-year-old East Chapel Hill High 10th grader Trevor Caterson, who drove to Fayetteville with four other East boys.
"I just don't like war at all in general," he said. "We're tired of Bush, and tired of what he's been doing to our nation."
While some people thought marching against the war in a military town was disrespectful, Larry Syverson checked things out with his son before he drove alone to the demonstration from his Richmond, Va., home.
"The soldiers in Iraq understand how we can support the troops by wanting to bring them home and not support the administration," Syverson said. "So I will let a soldier that's been in Iraq make that decision."
In all, Syverson has raised four sons--all of them joined the military, and three were serving in combat duty at the same time, he said.
"I thought it was important to come to an Army town and march through an Army town showing that I'm a military dad," said Syverson, who marched with a sign that included photos of his two sons who served in Iraq. "I have three sons in the military. I can support my sons by wanting to bring 'em home. I'm proud of their service. I love my country. I'm a patriotic American. I just disagree with the current policy on Iraq."
While he was happy to have his son Brandon recently return safely from Iraq, Syverson said he was saddened because he knew another soldier had to take his son's place.
"That meant another family would have to go through this hell of having a son in Iraq," he said.
Pratt, who moved to Fayetteville last year from Minnesota, has to go back to work at the hospital where many of her co-workers will have seen her on the news or read about her in the newspaper.
"I'm scared to go to work," she said.