As the casualties have mounted in the war in Iraq, families on both sides of the conflict have been dealing with fear and grief. One U.S. community that's been directly affected is Jacksonville, North Carolina, home to more than 40,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune. Lejeune's Marines have sustained some of the heaviest American casualties since the fighting began. About 20 have been killed or are missing in action, prompting a recent visit of support from President Bush.
Several dozen young women in jeans and sneakers are line dancing, having fun. This could be any fitness class anywhere in the United States.
But this is not just anywhere. This is a community center at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base on the North Carolina coast. And the main purpose of this class is stress relief for war wives whose husbands are fighting in Iraq. Assistant director Monique Davis says it helps these women just to be together. "Maybe because we're in an environment where a lot of people don't have families," she said. "So they kind of latch on to other people that are dealing with the same situation."
Different wives have different ways of coping. At lunch after the dance class, 30-year-old Leeanne Dupree holds her baby daughter and explains why Phoebe is a bit skittish around men. It's because Phoebe's father hasn't been around much since she was born. The last time Ms. Dupree heard from him, her husband was in Kuwait. She doesn't know where he is now. But she faces the uncertainty stoically. "You know, we really don't talk about it, we really don't, which is fine with me," said Leeanne Dupree. "No news is good news, that's how I feel."
Other wives, like Andrea Gizarelli try to keep a positive attitude. The 23-year-old's husband is on the front lines somewhere in Iraq. "So sometimes I worry about that, but I know he's going to be okay, just knowing there's other Marines that are there to protect my husband, that they're all there to accomplish a mission and do it together as a team," she said.
Other military wives are a source of strength for 24-year-old Catherine Salcito. She hasn't seen her husband since he shipped out to the Gulf last August. His deployment has been extended indefinitely. She says it's comforting, in a way, to know there are others who share her fear and frustration. "I have a lot of friends whose husbands are in Kuwait or Iraq and some whose fathers are over there, too, so it helps to know I'm not the only one," said Catherine Salcito. "And although we all feel differently about our different situations, yeah, it does help, 'cuz we can all kind of lean on each other."
Ms. Salcito says being on base is a double-edged sword: she gets support, but she also feels immersed in the war. Still, instead of going back home to Washington State with her two-year-old son, this war wife has chosen to stay at Camp Lejeune. She wants to continue volunteering with wives who are new arrivals at the base, and are far from their parents and extended families. "You know, a lot of them are away and I'm pretty much the only link they have at the point to any information," she said. "So I kind of want to be here in case anything does come down."
One thing Catherine Salcito tries not to do is to watch a lot of war news on TV. But across town, at Lee Sloan's house, the news is almost always on. "The Jacksonville community is anxiously waiting on word of what happened to these missing Marines, "she said.
Ms. Sloan has a grandson in the Army. He turned 25, somewhere in the Gulf, during the first week of the war. The last she heard, he was okay. But Ms. Sloan says people here feel each casualty like it was their own, whether or not they knew the soldier involved. She has done her part to boost local morale, by staging a fashion show on the base. She says that's just part of a town-wide support effort, the likes of which she hasn't seen in the 30 years she's lived here. "The community of Jacksonville… I'm not saying they didn't pull together before, but I think it's even more… more this time than ever, ever before," observed Lee Sloan.
Part of Jacksonville's resilience may come from the fact that many here know the reality of war.
Bob Jones, the general manager of Freedom Furniture and Electronics, has posted the sign "Pray for Our Losses" outside his store. He says Camp Lejeune's casualties have saddened local residents, but not fazed them. "We have vets here that served in World War II," he said. "We have Korean vets, and that was a much harder war, a very harsh war. I'm a Vietnam vet myself. No, we understand. If this was a community where we didn't have a lot of vets, then we probably wouldn't understand."
If the Marines still here have any qualms about going to Iraq, they're not saying so. Gassing up his car, First Lieutenant Matt O'Donnell says it's hard enough to be left behind anytime fellow marines are deployed. "You know, when you hear that they've taken casualties or they're running into minor difficulties, it really makes you want to go even more," said Lieutenant O'Donnell. "When they're in combat, you wanna be there beside them."
Lieutenant O'Donnell could get that chance. He's awaiting orders that will tell him when, or whether, he'll ship out for Iraq.