Helicopter rotors chop the air to the south. Fighter jets burn through central skies. Artillery shells shake desert hills in the north. This is not Iraq. It's San Diego County. Here, residents have for decades considered the sounds of military training the daily soundtrack. But since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the sear and boom of war machines has taken on new significance. That's because one in five U.S. troops now fighting, winning-and dying-in Iraq come from here. So do many of their families.
San Diego is home to nearly 130,000 sailors and Marines, and 120,000 military family members. Another 75,000 residents are military retirees, surviving dependents, or civilian employees. At least eight major Navy and Marine Corps bases dot the county. Those are populated by scores of "tenant commands," such as fighter squadrons, infantry units, and maintenance battalions similar to the one from which Iraqi forces last week seized five American prisoners of war.
As the first days of the war unfolded more messily than previous Middle East campaigns, a cloud has crept over a region where the weather is sunny and 72 degrees nearly year-round. At Camp Pendleton, for example, a sprawling Marine Corps base in the north county city of Oceanside, flags fly at half-mast. That base gave up the war's first casualties: Maj. Jay Aubin, 36; Capt. Ryan Beaupre, 30; Staff Sgt. Kendall Atersbey, 29; and Cpl. Brian Kennedy, 25. Last week, "Camp Pen," as the base is known locally, memorialized the fallen, all CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter crewmen from the storied 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit. As of March 25, one quarter of the war's casualties thus far hailed from units in San Diego County. Only families associated with Camp Lejeune, N.C., have lost more loved ones.
San DiegoÐarea third-grader Daniel Thompson keeps a framed picture of his father, a Marine sent to the Middle East in January, on his desk at school. "I'm worrying about if my dad's going to die or not," Daniel told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Schools here, particularly those with lots of students whose parents are Marines, have tried to keep kids focused on positive activities. For San Onofre Elementary near Camp Pen, that may be a mixed message: The school also sent home permission slips that would allow officials to give students potassium iodide tablets if nearby San Onofre nuclear power plant were hit by terrorists.
Watching the war from here also is tough on military family members who witness acts of hatred perpetrated in the name of "peace." One morning last week, Stan Stafford, a resident of the San Diego suburb of North Park, stepped out his front door to find his car and lawn covered in what looked like blood. Empty Texaco oil containers littered the grass, and scrawled messages on his door and elsewhere screamed, "Blood money," and, "No blood for oil." The vandals had also stolen something irreplaceable: a seven-foot American flag that had decorated the coffin of his dad, a 16-year Marine Corps veteran. After local columnist Diane Bell wrote about Mr. Stafford's plight, an aviation mechanic from Miramar contacted him and offered a flag flown over the air station.
"Anti-war" protests are unwelcome in San Diego where so many of the protesters' neighbors are literally laying down their lives. "It infuriates me," Air Force Reserve wife Sallie Small told WORLD. "The problem is that the 'quiet majority' are out doing their grocery shopping and taking the kids to soccer. Meanwhile, protesters are wasting ... the city's money."
But San Diego County residents who support President Bush and the sacrifices of the military here are looking for something they can do to help. Some found that "something" on the county's most listened-to morning drive-time talk show. Since the war began, KFMB-FM's "Jeff and Jer Showgram" has reached out to military family members, and through the Internet, to troops stationed overseas. The duo launched a "Cyber March," asking listeners to go to the website and sign in with their name and city to express support for the troops. The list of names grew from zero to 3,000 within 90 minutes of launch on March 24. "We had no idea this would happen, but 20 minutes into the Cyber March, [we'd] already had a call from the Iraqi desert that troops on laptops were watching the list of names grow," Jeff and Jer wrote on their website. The next day, they'd reached their goal of 50,000 names: one stateside supporter for every man and woman from San Diego now fighting in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the sounds of military training operations rumble on. Around here, military folk have always referred to the ubiquitous fighter-jet noise as "the sound of freedom." Now, some say, it is also the sound of sacrifice.