On the Homefront: Centralia, Washington
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KWAME HOLMAN: In the close-knit community of Centralia, Wash., there’s a strong history of military service among residents and broad support for President Bush’s actions in Iraq. Although Centralia sits in Washington’s traditionally liberal third congressional district, a majority of its 14,000 residents, such as antique store owner Dan Duffy, are Republicans.
DAN DUFFY: I hate to see our young people being killed in this situation. But I know that it’s the correct thing to do, and to justify it for the sake of a war that’s being fought when it’s not in our own area still has to be made. We must do what we’re doing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Just down the street from Duffy’s antique store, Republican Todd Chaput manages the Olympic Cafe, a historic watering hole that served its first drink in 1908. He also endorsed the war.
TODD CHAPUT: For stability in the region, I could see how it would be a positive force to do something to stabilize the region. There are enough problems over there right now. We can’t take care of them all, but we should try to do what we can.
KWAME HOLMAN: But even here in largely conservative Centralia, which helped President Bush win Washington state’s third district in 2000, some question the president’s actions in Iraq. The third district is represented in Congress by Democrat Brian Baird. He opposed going to war and has criticized the postwar strategy.
REP. BRIAN BAIRD: I’m sad about it as well, but we are where we are.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Baird hosted a town hall meeting last Thursday night, and it appeared many of the town’s Republicans stayed home.
Those with questions about Iraq were very critical. Rick Straw focused on the effect of the war at home. He asked Baird about reports that the families of soldiers and reservists were having trouble making ends meet.
RICK STRAW: I’m wondering if anything is being done for those guys who are doing the service for us, instead of penalizing them, which is to my mind very disastrous.
REP. BRIAN BAIRD: We have increasingly placed the burden of fighting our wars and doling our defense on guardsmen and reservists. We fixed some of the problems. They should have never existed. We’ve fixed this nonsense of having to pay for your meals while at Walter Reed; the good news is you get out of the hospital, the bad news is you owe us for your meals while you were there, and you’re a soldier, you — so we fixed that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Both Stephen Barlow and Bernie Meyer said such hardships buttress their conclusion that the Iraq war has been a dire mistake.
STEPHEN BARLOW: We’re in war that was not necessary. There are other ways to address the issue. To me, this is a catastrophe for this country.
BERNIE MEYER: I think we are bungling it and creating more enemies across the world. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to grow up in this world the way it’s going.
REP. BRIAN BAIRD: This is what I hear internationally. They have real concerns about the administration. And that is, I think, a long-term danger that I don’t know that the average American hears it. I hear it all the time. Not you, not your country. It’s not your people.
We don’t trust this guy. Even if you go in with good intentions and even if you assume good intentions on the president’s part, if he doesn’t have the confidence of the world behind him, because of how he’s gone about it, the risks to our country over the long haul are great.
KWAME HOLMAN: But back out on Centralia’s main street, Todd Chaput’s view was far different. He and many local residents generally feel that the president was right to act largely unilaterally, and preemptively, even if doing so upset U.S. allies around the world.
TODD CHAPUT: The Americans have always went to the doctor when you got sick. Well, why not take care of the thing before it happens? Preventive medicine. I can see the rationale behind it, and it does make some sense. If the threat is there, or the potential of the threat is there, why not? It doesn’t have to be militarily, I think, at first, but why not try to take care of the problem before it ever escalates into a real problem?
KWAME HOLMAN: Dan Duffy agreed. He said he’d hoped weapons of mass destruction would have been found by now, but said his belief Iraq had a role as a terrorist training ground was reason enough to launch the invasion.
DAN DUFFY: The fact that they didn’t find them doesn’t negate the responsibility that we’ve had to try to curb terrorism throughout the world, and I think that this is one area where it’s certainly been generated from.
KWAME HOLMAN: So you agreed with the president that it was part of the war on terrorism to invade Iraq?
DAN DUFFY: I would think that would be correct. I agree with the president 100 percent.
KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Baird disputed those theories.
REP. BRIAN BAIRD: I’m not sure it is legitimate to say that Iraq is really a center for war on terror because it wasn’t where the terrorists originated. Not a single terrorist came from Iraq, and the distraction of Iraq may embolden terrorists elsewhere. And we didn’t preempt anything. Saddam Hussein had no capacity to attack the U.S.
If he had nuclear weapons, that’d be one thing. If he had terrorist weapons, that would be one thing, if he had had chemical weapons, that would be one thing but he did not. I would respect his decision but I don’t. So I very much respect their opinion; I don’t share it.
KWAME HOLMAN: One of Congressman Baird’s biggest supporters in Centralia is Bob Gunther, a Vietnam veteran and 30-year union leader at the Transalta coal plant. Although he staunchly supports the troops, Gunther says the president may not have been straight with the American people in the lead-up to war.
BOB GUNTHER: I feel kind of betrayed. I feel betrayed. I do. What little I knew, I would think the leaders of this country would have known a heck of a lot more than I do. But in this instance here, with this Iraqi war, we’re there. We got to have faith in our commander in chief, and we’ve got to support the decisions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question the decisions before they’re made or even after they’re made.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gunther has personal concerns about the war. Some of his colleagues at the coal plant serve in the National Guard, and could be called into action at any time.
Just last month, 4,300 guardsmen from nearby Fort Lewis reported for 18 months of duty in Iraq. The number of those serving from Washington state is greater today than at any time since World War II. Todd Chaput, a former air national guardsman himself, said most people don’t understand the problems on the home front when soldiers are called off to war.
TODD CHAPUT: I have a couple of friends that were getting ready to get out and move, and they put a freeze, and they had already sold their houses and they were getting ready to move on, and it just was life-shattering. And I don’t think the public realizes that, and the hardship that they face by the loss of income, or the potential loss of income. I mean, these people are putting their lives on the line for everybody.
KWAME HOLMAN: And today the people of Centralia learned of the deaths of the three soldiers from Fort Lewis, members of an armored brigade that had arrived in Iraq only a few days ago. Their identities have not been released.