Ray Suarez: Microcosm of America at Megabase Fort Hood


Ray Suarez reports at Ford Hood. Photo by Daniel Sagalyn

Fort Hood is a remarkable place. One day recently began with a bowl of cereal at my kitchen table in Washington, and ended that night with dinner in Killeen, Texas. It made for a bracing slap upside the head… a departure from one world and sudden entry into another.

If you’ve ever visited a stateside military facility, much will seem familiar. What makes Fort Hood stand out is the sheer scale of everything.

As the U.S. Army has reduced the number of bases it has concentrated more personnel and equipment at an archipelago of superbases strung across the country, and this is one of them. Some 60,000 active duty men and women are stationed here, a number that rises and falls with the rhythm of deployments to combat zones.

The place relies on the work of thousands more civilians working in support, and thousands more spouses, children, and other dependents live on massive base housing complexes surrounding the fort.

During the Cold War, Western reporting from the Soviet Union often talked about “military cities,” complexes closed to all but a small number of citizens and almost all foreigners. What we’ve created in Killeen is a military city all right, but one with an American-style openness about its business and its mission.

Bumper stickers proclaim “Army Wife.” Banks, restaurants, car dealers, and other businesses proudly wear their dedication to soldiers and their families by proclaiming it from their windows. Other places in America simply aren’t like Fort Hood.

“We’ve asked 1 percent of our population to do 100 percent of the fighting. This is new. We haven’t done this before, for so many years,” said Maxine Trent, a psychologist who works with soldiers and their families. She’s right about that.

The weather is, to put it charitably, terrible. It’s cold in the winter, and in summer becomes an anvil pounded by the hammer of a relentless sun. For kicks, Mother Nature can also dish out storms of freakish ferocity, with the added bonus of being able to watch them approach for a few hours across the big flat plains and gently rolling hills.

The thermometer on the rental car dash climbed through the afternoon as I made my way from Dallas. Just north of Waco I pulled over for a first rate beef brisket sandwich, with the dash reading 98 degrees. Just over an hour later as I pulled into Killeen it read, wait for it, 107. When I opened my door the hot, dry air rushed in. Think of opening the oven to look in on something baking. I was about to enter the oven and work in it for a few days. This is, I thought, just the kind of weather to get a young enlistee into the martial spirit.

Not to worry. Barely 20 minutes later I watched from safely inside a lobby as the trees in a parking lot were bent nearly horizontal by a ferocious wind, and hailstones rattled the windows and gathered in the grass. The weather is the topic of much conversation on and around the base. We were lucky, many said, to be here now, when last week it was really bad.

Out there in the great big world, I am not often called “sir.” In the conventions of the television news business, I am expected to call people “doctor,” “professor,” “senator,” “secretary,” or “bishop,” while they get to call me “Ray.” With a necktie that put me firmly on the road to “sir-ness” and the recent addition of gray on the top of my head and the bottom of my chin, I was unprepared for the onslaught of courteous deference that comes from being on a military post, and being on a military post in the South.

I thought of my son, 21 years old, about to begin his fourth year at college, as I watched the lanky young men at the base food court. Goofing around amongst themselves, and treating others with great respect, they were a curious mix of lightness and fun and great seriousness about the day’s work. The mess hall of the 21st century featured some of the best known names in American fast food, and others that are known only to those who eat in forts.

In ways large and small the military really could become a separate and distinct society. I’m no sociologist, but I suspect from years of covering stateside debate, base realignment, and military procurement, that the separation is growing wider. That might not be good for the military itself, or the society as a whole.

I headed to Fort Hood already appreciating and admiring the people who decide that military service is something they want to do, either for a brief time in their lives or as a career. At the same time it rankles when I hear politicians say, as they so often do, that the people who serve “are the best we have,” or are “the best among us.”

It rankles because I’ve always thought the greatest strength of a military force in a democracy is that it is who we are. Not better. Not worse. But rather, service people are ideally a distillation of all the strengths and weaknesses of a continent-sized country of more than 300 million people.

Some of the people who join are unequivocally drawn by the profession of arms. They want to fight for America, simple as that. Others are embracing the structure and discipline the service offers as an alternative to an undisciplined life. Still others are drawn by the benefits of spending time in service: the education and opportunities can change the course of a life.

This may be part and parcel of the transition to an all-volunteer military. We may be using hyperbole to extol the small minority of Americans who are willing to do what most of us are not: to agree, if asked, to use lethal force in the service of national aims and take the risk of having it used against them.

For me, a middle-aged American who came of service age during the Vietnam war, one of the most attractive aspects of the people I met at Fort Hood was their very ordinariness. They are tall, short, men, women, rural, urban, skinny, buffed, chubby, provincial, worldly, with accents and life experience from every corner of the country. To make their experience so separate and distinct from the life of all Americans, to make soldiers a tiny subculture in our common life seems to me a bad idea.

I came away from Texas reassured that this most American of institutions is not a separate society in 2010. It is, still, very much part of us… worthy of the thanks of a nation that doesn’t always remember to be grateful.

Watch for Ray Suarez’s report on the wounded warriors program at Ford Hood on Friday’s NewsHour. In the meantime, here’s a slide show of the people he met:

(View a larger-scale version of the slide show.)