On a warm, sunny day in Oak Grove, Ky., news trucks park in a strip center across the street from Gate 4, the main entrance to Fort Campbell and the 101st Airborne Division. In the wake of a stunning, turncoat attack on soldiers at a 101st Airborne Division command center in Kuwait by a disgruntled U.S. sergeant, reporters are hoping to pick up clues about what happened. Or at least gauge the reaction of the soldiers who remain at Fort Campbell.
But no one is saying much.
“This kind of stuff happens,” says a nonchalant Augustine Hartman, a buff soldier walking out of the U.S. Cavalry Store, where you can buy a “No Slack for Iraq” T-shirt. “Morale ain’t down.”
Two other soldiers at Bo’s Barbershop, which is housed in a log cabin on Fort Campbell Boulevard, decline to discuss how they feel about the incident. They say they are being told not to talk about the attack. A higher-ranking African American soldier who is getting his boots shined nearby makes some sort of reference to Michael Moore’s tirade at the Oscars a day before against President George Bush. But he then goes on to say he doesn’t want to be quoted as saying anything.
Information is harder to come by at Fort Campbell than an Iraqi flag. While the U.S. Military has given reporters an unrivaled opportunity to provide firsthand reports from the front lines of Iraq, the brass at Fort Campbell have closed ranks, prohibiting reporters from entering the base and apparently discouraging their soldiers from talking to the press.
“The embedded reporters have more access than we do,” says MSNBC’s ubiquitous Ashleigh Banfield, wearing her trademark brown glasses, as she surveys the scene in the strip center. It is, indeed, a rich irony that reporters in combat are given more press freedoms than those in the United States.
The border towns that surround Fort Campbell, Oak Grove, Ky., and Clarksville, Tenn., are not the most happening places to be for a reporter. We’ve all seen the David Blooms of the world embedded in the front lines of Southern and Central Iraq, reporting via videophone against a dark, windstormed backdrop, punctured by gunfire and explosions. And yet here in a parking lot straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, members of the media are having little luck piecing together stories that might shed light on the war with Iraq.
Nonetheless, last weekend’s shocking incident certainly rattled this military town and caused headlines. The event also underscored the unpredictability of any war, no matter how meticulously planned. On early Sunday, Sgt. Asan Akbar, of the 326th Engineering Battalion, allegedly launched a grenade and a small arms attack at his fellow soldiers, killing one and wounding numerous others. Akbar, who is Muslim, reportedly opposed the war on religious principles, but no one really knows what he might have been thinking. Or if he was thinking at all. Akbar is now scheduled to be transferred from Kuwait to Mannheim, Germany, where he will await formal charges and the conclusion of the investigation into the attack.
Like dozens of other media outlets, the Scene went to Akbar’s low-rent apartment complex to sift for clues about what might have motivated him to attack his fellow soldiers. A smug FBI agent was there as well, presumably trying to figure out the same thing. But again highlighting the theme of the day, no one seemed to have anything to say. Akbar’s neighbors offered the obligatory comments about him being quiet and not particularly sociable.
“My daughter would say 'hi’ and smile, but he would not smile back,” says a pregnant Denise Sands, whose husband is deployed in Kuwait and will probably miss the birth of his second daughter. Sands also volunteers that the stress of war is getting to her. “I can’t eat that much and I can’t sleep.”
One of the apartment dwellers, Willie Shammell Jr., had earlier passed himself off to the The Tennessean as a friend of Asan Akbar, telling the daily that Akbar was reluctant to fight a war against Iraq. “No, America shouldn’t be going,” Akbar said, according to Shamell’s quotation in Tuesday’s Tennessean. He “didn’t think it was right for America to be over there.”
But Banfield herself says that when MSNBC interviewed Shammell Jr., he said that Akbar was excited to go and that “he packed his bags early.” Sands also corroborates that Shammell didn’t know Akbar that well and that he’s “switching around his story.” So even when people talk, it’s debatable whether what they say can be trusted.
Akbar livedit’s safe to say he’s probably not coming backin the run-down Bancroft apartment complex in Clarksville, where numerous other soldiers also have apartments. For his tiny one-story brick dwelling, which could not have been more than 800 square feet, he paid approximately $400it would have been more if he had wanted a washer and drier. Across the street from the apartment dwelling lies a dilapidated basketball goal with a crooked rim. Neighbors said they rarely saw Akbar playing around. He was always very serious, they said. And quiet.
At one point, a Clarksville police officer drives up to Akbar’s home and tells some reporters to leave. “This is private property,” he says. And while he’s initially friendly, he shouts when reporters try to interview one last person.
Back at Bo’s Barbershop, Ronnie Ward, who is giving a soldier a tight shave, says that the soldiers he has talked to about the attack suggest that Akbar might have just cracked under the pressure of war. This might not have been about his faith, after all. “You hear a lot of them say that in times of pressure, strange things happen,” Ward says. “You put someone in a different element that they have never been in and they react in different ways. Some handle it better than others.”
Ward says that despite the attack, the people in Fort Campbell have few misgivings about the war.
“We’re behind the guys 110 percent,” he says. “We believe in what they are doing and what they are about and what they are going to do to achieve those goals.”
Still, in the shops and neighborhoods that surround Fort Campbell, you don’t see as many flags, yellow ribbons and billboards expressing support for the soldiers as might be expected. Perhaps the people in Oak Grove and Clarksville understand the toil of war and how, unlike a football team, it’s not something that you ever root for.
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