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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Slice of Life in a Mini-Mart

Walter Brasch, my guest blogger today, is a nationally known columnist, journalist and college professor. He is our guest columnist today. This forum is available for alternative views. Please leave comments.

By Walter Brasch

It was just a chance meeting in a 24-hour convenience mart at a truck stop on a Sunday evening outside Bloomsburg, Pa.

One cashier. About eight people in line. “Well, at least we’re not in any hurry,” she said. She was in her late 50s, about 5-foot-6. Short blonde hair. Wearing a multi-colored blouse, green shorts, and flip-flops on the warm Summer evening.

He was about 20. 5-foot-8, maybe 5-9. Short brown hair, slightly bleached by the sun. Wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of sneaks. Wrapped around two inches of his upper left arm was a multi-colored tattoo band of a vine, topped by some Chinese characters. He smiled, sighed, and stretched.

“I’m tired. It’s been a long weekend,” he replied to her off-hand comment.

“Maybe you can rest up tomorrow,” she suggested. It’s a college town; she probably figured he might have been a student who had just been partying too hard the past three days. She, like the rest of us in the store, figured wrong.
He chuckled, giving one of those, “I wish” laughs. “I have a five-mile run first thing in the morning.” She asked where, thinking it could be one of those myriad charity runs.

“New York,” he said, adding, “I’m military. Army.”

With several people ahead of them, she flipped off a comment. “Better to be running in New York than in the desert.”

“I’m leaving for there at the end of the month.”

She told him that her son, a Marine, had been in the Gulf during Desert Storm and that it’s not a place he ever wants to go back to visit. She also said something about the military putting such emphasis on running when their mission now seemed to be just to stand and be targets. She said it would only seem important if they were running away. He laughed and shook his head in agreement.

They chatted a bit more in a line that seemed to take forever to reach the counter. He was a cheerful, unassuming, friendly kid, so she told him to take his humor and personality along with him. Said he would need it, that the guys already there would need it too since they were really getting tired and disgusted.

“Not just disgusted,” he said. “They’re getting really mad.”

A few months before this war began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had promised Marines at Camp Pendleton, “You can be darn sure that you folks will not be asked to do anything that we won’t be able to do.” The lady in the mini-mart knew better. In innumerable campaign speeches, George W. Bush had said that he opposed nation building. But, now more than 150,000 Ameri-can soldiers and Marines are in Iraq trying to act as civil engineers, urban planners, and policemen in a country whose infrastructure, once one of the world’s strongest, has been reduced to third world status, a country that no longer has adequate water, electricity, or even gas; a nation whose roads, buildings, and sewer systems have been destroyed; a nation that lost more than 7,500 of its civilians in a war that now looks as if it may have been created for political reasons rather than military necessity. A war that cost more than 450 Americans their lives, that has left more than 1,500 wounded, more than in Desert Storm, a U.N.-sanctioned military action. Dressed in a flight suit in a photo-op on an aircraft carrier, the President told the nation, “The U.S. and our allies have prevailed.” More than half the American dead were killed after the President’s announcement.

Thousands of reservists and members of the National Guard had been promised that their tours of duty would be short, but now each of them were told their tours would be at least a year. Most had given up better paying jobs and now their families were struggling to survive at home. Wives, with pre-teen children, were now forced to go to work or to work another job just to be able to pay the mortgage and other fixed expenses.

For the American people, the cost will be billions of dollars more than they had been led to believe. [Two weeks after the lady and the soldier met in the store, America would learn the cost was a billion dollars a week just for the military presence; at least another $87 billion if Congress approves the President’s request. Billions that could be used to help this nation’s sinking economy; to strengthen its environment; to help more than 33 million Americans, about 11.7 percent of the population, who are living in poverty, the highest percent since 1993, according to the Census Bureau.] Much of the money for Iraq, said the President, would be used to build schools and roads; he said nothing about doing the same for America. The $87 billion request for the coming year is about $35 billion more than the budget for the U.S. Department of Education. And, the president said nothing about the billions that would go to Halliburton, the oil conglomerate that once had Vice-President Dick Cheney as its CEO.

The President keeps telling the nation the money is for the War on Terrorism. But, in reality it’s billions to occupy a nation that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, never posed an imminent threat to America, nor had it harbored terrorists—at least not until after its infrastructure collapsed under America’s “shock and awe” supremacy.
The lady didn’t have time to tell the young soldier all this. But, he knew. Long before the President told the nation, he knew. Twenty-year-old soldiers aren’t dumb.

Like most retired 4-star generals, this soldier said the lady was right. Not just right, but damned right. But, he also said he was Infantry, so he’d be doing what he was told.

By then they were at the cashier. He paid for his drink and bought a lottery ticket. Scratched it right there. It was a loser. They joked about it, and she told the young man in the convenience mart to stay safe and to “come back exactly as you are now.”

“I will,” he promised, walking out the door.

None of us knew much about him. Why he was in Bloomsburg. Why he was at the mini-mart. What he did before he joined the Army. What he planned to do after he was discharged. What his hobbies and hopes were. But, we knew he wouldn’t come back the same as he is now. He’s just too young to know that.
This article is from Walter Brasch's latest book, Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush. The book is available through or Dr. Brasch is a syndicated columnist, university journalism professor, and the author of 17 books. The Midwest Book Review noted that "Brasch is a master at weeding through the political lies, deceit, corruption, rhetoric, and hyperbole to help us find the truth. He is a man we need very much in today’s complex society. . . If you’re interested in politics, this book should be on your table beside your bed.”

Carolyn Howard-Johnson wrote the foreword for Eric Dinyer's book of patriotic quotations, Support Our Troops, published by Andrews McMeel. Part of the proceeds for the book benefit Fisher House. Her chapbook of poetry won the Military Writers Society of America's award of excellence.

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