After the past few elections, I, like many, wanted to know if the United States is as divided as we are led to believe. Are the media stereotypes about people living in the so-called “red states” accurate? I wasn’t finding any answers in my San Francisco bubble, so I decided to take a six-month leave of absence from my radio job, held an auction to raise money, bought a 1984 Toyota van, and headed to Texas. The goal of the trip was to get past the sound bites and have conversations with people, most of whom you’ve never heard of, about the issues they care about and why they vote the way they do (or not).
Over the course of my journey, I interviewed hundreds of people, including a Democratic cowboy from Linden, Texas who called George W. Bush a wannabe; a Montana hunter who is thinking about leaving the conservation movement to fight for gay rights; a former evangelical pastor who now preaches inclusion in Tulsa, Oklahoma; moderate Republicans who believe Bush is the worst environmental president in history; Republicans who oppose Bush’s foreign policy, but are afraid to speak out; pro-choice Republicans; doctors and patients at the only clinic that provides safe and legal abortions in Mississippi; and opinionated people who don’t vote. I write about my journey in my new book, Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland. Here’s a story about one of the many veterans I met.
After four months on the road, I still found myself saying, “I can’t believe there’s a Wal-Mart here.” When I assumed a town was too small for a Wal-Mart, it practically hit me in the face. I did several interviews in Wal-Mart parking lots because they were always full and just about everyone I approached was willing to talk.
A few minutes after finding a parking spot at the Wal-Mart in Alva, Oklahoma (population 5,288), a 24-year-old guy named Eli pulled up next to me. He was wearing jeans, a blue and white checkered button up, a baseball cap with a torn bill, and sunglasses. Eli served in Iraq for four months in 2003. He was stationed in Camp Doha in Kuwait before the invasion started and was 10 miles south of Baghdad after the bombing began. Not long after we began talking, it was clear he was filled with pent-up anger and needed to vent. “We had 40 days with no shower, five severe sand storms, a month without ammunition. We went through a lot.”
“A month without ammunition?”
“Thirty-eight guys and the only thing we had was 210 rounds and 210 rounds is supposed to be for one person. Some crap happened.”
“What’d you do?”
“Throw rocks? Everybody else had tents. We didn’t. Everybody else had air conditioners. We didn’t. The only thing I had to eat for three days was crackers. We ran out of water for a full day. We went through a lot.”
As Eli spoke, he had a painful expression on his face. “I lost a friend in Colorado. He was over there one week shy of a year. He had an affair with a colonel. He brought it home with him. The day before he was supposed to be court-martialed, he went down to the local park and blew his brains out. A $250,000 life insurance policy was supposed to go to his family. His family only gets 25 percent since it was a self-inflicted wound.”
“How has all of this affected you?”
“I have nightmares every single day. I’ve lost several friends over there. For some reason, Bush is still keeping us over there.”
“After going through all of this, have your opinions about the war changed?”
“Yes, they have. Bush could have done a lot of things differently. He sent us over there to do a mission. A lot of people have died doing that mission. It’s about time they finish it up and come home. I was over there for two weeks in 120-degree weather. I was wearing a t-shirt with a jacket over it and coveralls for two weeks straight. I have the option to go back over, but I’m not going to because I have the option this time. My grandpa’s health is real bad so I’m going to stay back and help with the family. I’ve been there and I’ve done it. I know how bad it is. I’ve lost several friends over there. My cousin was over there. He just had shoulder surgery. He’s my age and is disabled.”
“Are people around here still joining the military?”
“Our numbers are so low. I’m with the Kansas National Guard now and they said we’re down 2700 compared to this time last year. That’s bad. Recruiters are losing their jobs because they can’t get people in.”
“Are your friends’ opinions about the war changing?”
“Kinda yes, kinda no. Some people are a little bit more gung-ho than I am. They want to go back over there and shoot somebody. I tried to go deer hunting since being over there. I can’t do it. It’s not a challenge to me. There’s a lifeless animal with no gun. I can’t do it. We had machine guns over there. You name it, we had it. If somebody came up to us, you better be bringing lunch `cause we’re the U.S. We’re gonna tear you up. But a lot of people’s opinions have changed. Several guys from here in Alva and the surrounding areas went ahead and quit. They were thinking about staying in for the whole 20 years and after they got back, they said, `My time is up. I’m through.’ One guy was in for 22 years and he’s 62-years-old. He resigned to go over there with us and he got gallstones. When he got back, he was gonna stay in for another year, but he quit because of so much crap that happened. Some people got treated good; some got treated bad. Like I said, 40 days without a shower. Hand wipes. Toilet paper. That’s what you can send the troops. Prayers. We always ask for prayers. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Shaving cream. Razors and a picture or two.”
“When you look at how much we’re spending on this war, you would think there would be an abundance of those goods.”
“There’s not. I celebrated my 22nd birthday over there and the barracks were named after me because I got so much mail. I had eight boxes come full of you name it, I had it. What they first told us when we went over there was, `We’re not going to have bacon. No pork allowed. It’s against their religion.’ As soon as we set base up, guess what we get? We get pork because we’re on U.S. soil. We’re on the Army base. I’m Army National Guard. Everybody says we’re weekend warriors. We only serve one weekend a month, but we make commitments like everybody else. I’ve got several friends in the Marines, Navy, you name it. We all sacrifice our lives. We sacrifice our marriages and our kids. I haven’t been the same since we got home. I know a friend who, as soon as he got home, told his wife, `No more. I’m getting a divorce.’ Women are treated like crap over there. Women are the backbone of the family. Women do all the work. The men are the bosses. Men tell the women what to do. Women will do everything.”
“You mean the Iraqi women?”
“Did you have many interactions with Iraqi families?”
“Yes. Several came up to us and started to learn our language. We had several English interpreters over there. We learned a little bit of their language. We went through a three-hour class to see how they speak: no, yes, here’s some food, here’s some water. We really couldn’t give them that stuff because it was just like throwing a piece of candy to a bunch of kids. You give one, you have to give to every single one of `em. I remember several people would come up and say, `I want food. I want water.’ I had to say, `I can’t give you nothin’. It’s against regulations.’ Some of them loved us being there because they knew what we were doing. We were trying to get rid of Saddam and give them power so they’re not in war every single day. So some were grateful that we were there and others said, `U.S., just go ahead and leave. We don’t need you.'”
“Have opinions about the war in this area changed?”
“Yes, a lot of people who were with Bush have turned against him because it’s gone on too long. What are we doing there now? At this very moment, what are we doing? We’re still trying to help them gain control of their country. We have problems here in the U.S. People are dying everyday. It’s time to come home. Let people spend the rest of their lives with their families. It’s gone on too long. It’s gonna be like this for several more years.”
Rose Aguilar is author of the new book Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland. Rose also hosts Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco, writes for Alternet.org, and offers political analysis for the BBC.
My book was officially released today. Please spread the word. It’s a true labor of love and a grassroots effort. The voices in my book deserve to be heard.
Here’s more information:
A San Francisco radio host grown tired of media stereotypes, Rose Aguilar held an auction to raise money, bought a van, and set out on a six-month road trip through the red-state South and West to find out what voters really care about. Equal parts travelogue, political reportage, and personal discovery, Red Highways challenges conventional wisdom and calls for a more thoughtful and productive dialogue between Red and Blue America.
“Red Highways is riveting — I could not put it down. Alive with the voices of real people, it is both heartening and heart wrenching, both enraging and inspiring, full of insights and information. If you want to understand our country, and care about its future, read this book!”
-Riane Eisler, author of The Real Wealth of Nations and The Chalice and The Blade
“Red Highways takes us out of our personal ‘Green Zones’ to taste the diverse complexity of so-called conservative states, and challenges stereotypes reinforced by the corporate media. For mindless drivel from a pundit, watch CNN; for a clear view of what people of various political ideologies in the U.S. want, think, and believe, read this book.”
-Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
“Straight-ahead reporting on a road trip into the heart of Red State America for urban liberals who cannot (or dare not) make the tour themselves. Full of surprises.”
-Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War
Aguilar breaks shallow stereotypes by traveling through states that usually vote Republican–Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, and Montana–to talk to people of all political stripes about the issues they truly care about and what they expect from politicians.
This is a travelogue with all the attendant local color you might find on the road with Alton Brown, but pure politics.
*Domestic Violence Changed My Politics
*The Last Family Planning Clinic in Mississippi
*Overworked and Underpaid
*Off the Front Lines and Forgotten
“The `red’ state of Idaho is a hotbed of opposition to the Patriot Act. The `blue’ state of Connecticut sends ardent backers of the war in Iraq to Congress. America is neither so red as Republicans would imagine, nor so blue as Democrats hope. It is, in fact, a rich, complicated, at times frightening, at times reassuring shade of purple that Rose Aguilar captures not with the jaundiced eye of a political commentator but with the nuance of a novelist.”
-John Nichols, political writer, The Nation
“Red Highways is a trip through the USA’s byways, far beyond what the author calls “the media’s obsession with stereotypes.” Rose Aguilar takes us along as the rubber meets the road–and guides us through a remarkable quest for human substance instead of media clichés.”
-Norman Solomon, author of Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State
“Rose Aguilar brings curiosity and compassion to this beautiful story of a diehard liberal’s journey into the soul of middle America.”
-Harvard University Professor Linda Bilmes, co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War