The Army Town

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Fort Bragg soldiers arriving at Pope Air Force Base.
Photo by Christopher Sims

Fort Bragg soldiers do their coming and going at a huge corrugated steel shed almost the size of a football field. It's on Pope Air Force Base, right next door to Fort Bragg. Men and women in combat uniforms sit on rows of wooden benches, most of them wearing the red beret of the 82nd Airborne Division. Many are surrounded by wives or husbands, and children.

This day, 260 soldiers are waiting to board planes for Iraq. One young man in desert camouflage leans back against a bench, holding to his chest a tiny baby in a pink sleeper. He and his wife sit side by side not talking much. The soldier gazes at the baby.

"I'm Sergeant Joseph Avery, I'm with the 44th Med Brigade. I'm just catching up with my unit that's already in Iraq. My chain of command let me stay behind so I could see her born."

Sergeant Avery is a 29-year-old medic. His first child, Zoe Sophia, was born six weeks ago. He expects he won't see her for six months to a year.

"I mean, I don't want to go, but the job's got to be done and someone has to do it," says Avery. "So [I'll] just go and spend my time over there and come home. … I kind of want to go over there just to get some experience, 'cause it's going to help in the long run for promotions and stuff."

Avery's wife says she doesn't want to talk about it.

Some crusty military officer of a past generation is supposed to have said, "If the Army wanted you to have a wife, soldier, it would have issued you one." These days, military officials only bring up that quote to make the point that the Army has changed.

Colonel Al Aycock gives me a driving and walking tour of Fort Bragg. It looks a little like the old Soviet bloc with its low-slung, functional buildings painted in shades of brown. The military is noted for operating like a socialist society, providing complete healthcare coverage and housing assistance. But to keep its volunteer employees happy, the Army has spawned dozens of new programs for spouses and children.

"The Army has tried to adapt," says Aycock. "I know the Marine Corps, the Navy, and Air Force have also done the same things. ... Understanding that you just don't re-enlist a soldier, that you really enlist a soldier but you re-enlist the whole family."

As garrison commander, Colonel Aycock is effectively the mayor of Fort Bragg. He's in charge of meeting the needs of 30,000 people: soldiers and their families, who live on the post. Aycock shows off Fort Bragg's youth center with its two gyms, martial arts and dance studios, and indoor pool.

"This is a fantastic facility for the kids that, after school and on weekends, is used to its maximum capacity," says Aycock.

A few years ago, the Army remodeled an old building and created the Family Readiness Center.

"What you see over here is a computer lab where there'll be computers set up so that the families who don't have computer access can come in and make contact," says Aycock. "It doesn't necessarily have to be somebody deployed overseas. It could be they want to tell grandmother and grandfather that the child just had a birthday and they wanted to share some pictures."

Hanging on the wall, there's an array of flyers about Army programs. You can get help managing the family checkbook, preparing for a soldier's deployment or return, or finding a counselor to deal with stress.

Almost half of all Army personnel come from the South. Nearly a quarter come from Western states.

Source: Office of Army Demographics

"A lot of people can't handle the situation. They just can't do it. Like I know I can't, that's why my husband is getting out," says Tabitha Minto from Hendersonville, a small town in the North Carolina mountains. She and her husband, specialist Byron Minto, now live next to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. Military volunteers disproportionately come from Southern and Western states, from working-class backgrounds, and from small towns. Byron Minto joined the Army in 2000 looking for a secure job. Tabitha never liked his decision, even before 9/11.

"When I found out about September 11th, what had happened, I was picking out my wedding dress," says Tabitha. "So I pretty much - I pretty much freaked out. … We kind of knew it would be downhill from there. I mean, after that, you know there's going to be war and a lot of stuff going on."

Continue to part 2

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