I remember the homecoming in 2004 of a high school buddy of mine, a captain and helicopter pilot in the US Army. We had worn canary yellow Adidas uniforms on the soccer field together for three years, rode in the same Ford Windstar van to school every morning for four. We lived less than a half-mile from each other, and each Fall, since he was a year older, I bought his used textbooks and lab manuals. When he went to West Point in June 1997, I was proud of him, envious of his uniform, even though the military was a decision I never would have made myself. I contented myself to live vicariously, waiting for him to come home on leave to Corvallis, Oregon, so we could play Ping-Pong and he could tell stories about Camp Buckner, and Beast Barracks, and the long gray line.
At this latest homecoming in 2004, though, he couldn’t remember as many stories. His helicopter had crashed in an Iraqi swamp. Though temporarily paralyzed, he had managed to drag his co-pilot and himself to safety before being airlifted to Germany, and then Walter Reed, and then home to Oregon. He looked haggard and gaunt, his eyes dark and shiny. A pixel of brightness gleamed from each eyeball at various angles, depending on where the overhead lighting was. His voice dragged a little. He was doped up on goofballs for the pain. When he would speak, a sheen of numbness, pasty and doughy, seemed to flutter around him like an old man’s blanket. I didn’t ask him if he regretted anything, if he thought he belonged over there. I didn’t ask him about the faulty rotor that had stopped spinning and sealed his fate in the desert. Of course I didn’t ask. It wasn’t my place.
Two years later, citizens of medium-sized towns across the West are starting to believe that it is their place to ask questions. Citizens are beginning to feel the oppression of war in their own downtowns, including my neighbors in Corvallis, Oregon.
When San Francisco, New Paltz, New York, and Portland, Oregon, opened their courthouses to same-sex marriages in 2004, my hometown was right behind them. Rather than discriminate against same-sex couples seeking legal marriages, the city decided to ban all marriages, heterosexual or otherwise, until word from the state’s Attorney General came down from Salem. And while few understood that so-called “discrimination against everyone” was not discrimination at all, the cultural billboard had gone up. Progressives–and their zany schemes–were welcome in the Willamette Valley.
In February, a new battle has rocked the Corvallis City Council concerning the war in Iraq. On February 21, the nine-member council voted to adopt a “Troops Home” resolution based on a similar edict passed in Davis, California, last month.
Oddly, the resistance faced by the Corvallis resolution has been parliamentary, not political. The resolution is touted as non-partisan, and local Democrats and Republicans have voiced concern over the notion of nine council members speaking for the city as a whole. David Smithe, a citizen opposed to the resolution, has promised a lawsuit against the city should the legislation pass. As reported by the Corvallis Gazette-Times, Smithe e-mailed the council to say, “A lawsuit against your city is being considered, and it will be taken as high as we can get it. It is the process of stealing the beliefs of others and forcing political values onto others for ‘group think’ and good dog/bad dog concept that is going to bring your city to its knees.”
While the language in the resolution is far less harrowing than that in Smithe’s e-mail, its intention is no less serious. The text calls for the City Council to hereby urge “the US government to commence planning an orderly, rapid and comprehensive withdrawal of US military personnel from Iraq.” The language echoes resolutions already passed in the California towns of Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz, all progressive college towns with populations and demographics similar to Corvallis’s.
Moreover, the resolution brings Corvallis into concert with its representative to Congress, Peter DeFazio, who, in a letter to George W. Bush, explained that “a specific plan and timeline for withdrawal would provide much-needed relief to over-burdened military personnel and their families and provide some certainty to US taxpayers regarding the ultimate financial burden they’ll be forced to bear.” Indeed, as Corvallis Councilor George Grosch explained to the Gazette-Times, Oregon’s share of the total cost of war to date is $2.1 billion, while Corvallis’s share is $24.5 million.
I received an e-mail last month from my friend and former teammate, now stationed in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, after months of desk duty and recuperation in Hawaii. No longer piloting helicopters, he’s in the Sonora Desert for an advanced course in military intelligence. He tells me he’s requesting a switch from flying helicopters to planes, tells me he can now do twenty-five pull-ups in a row and run two miles in eleven minutes and thirty seconds. In addition, he’s thirty pounds lighter than when I last saw him. I imagined him, at seventeen, back on the soccer field with me.
His message struck me for its ordinariness. Short, military, phrases and acronyms brought me back to his ping-pong table, back to his stories of all things Army. He had to buy, he told me, a yellow PT belt because all of his from Hawaii were orange and not allowed at Fort Huachuca. He hoped to acclimate himself quickly to the 5000 feet MSL altitude of his new post. The ordeal of injury had been wiped clean from the correspondence, and I wondered what PT belts were, what the significance of yellow was, and how my Camel habit would fare at the mile-high base.
So life goes on as usual for my friend. And, not surprisingly, it goes on as usual in my town as well, which, as of February 21, is officially tired of supplying troops and cash to the war in Iraq. My buddy may be deployed to Iraq again. Like Corvallis, Davis, Santa Cruz, and other towns forging resolutions of their own, though, I’ll be proud of his service, but not flag-wavingly happy about it.