A chance meeting with three U.S. Army troops in an airport concourse led to one of the most fascinating series of interviews in my 25 years of reporting. These three shared their unbridled opinions on everything from America’s two most recent wartime presidents to why they choose to serve.
INDIANAPOLIS — Words flow off the tongue of U.S. Army Sergeant Jeremy Hansel like water from the fountain he drank from Friday at Indianapolis International Airport.
Here in Indiana, he said, “we vote for the man, not the party.” To hear this 13-year Army veteran tell it, Tuesday’s hotly contested Republican primary between six-term incumbent Dick Lugar and Tea Party challenger Richard Mourdock is exaggerated political theater that Hansel said diminishes the theater of war. He is a registered Democrat harshly critical of President Obama for whom he voted four years ago.
“I’d rather save households [of unemployed Americans] than be president of the United States,” said Hansel, your prototype no-frills infantry sergeant so often portrayed in the movies. “I have a hard time agreeing with this withdrawal from Iraq ordered by the president. If some 80-year-old senator [Lugar] can keep us fighting for what’s right over in Afghanistan or Iraq, then that’s enough to get my vote.”
A pack-a-day smoker with 13 tattoos – “One for every year I’ve been in the Army,” he joked – Hansel has a work ethic as blue as his language. He was among the first troops to cross the border into Iraq during the March 2003 invasion.
“I’m desperate to go back even after three tours,” said Hansel, nodding toward Army Private First Class Jamie Bachur. “And so is she.” Bachur grabs a water bottle and playfully bonks her superior on his arm.
“I personally hate politics. I just want to go overseas to join the fight to be part of a bigger picture,” said Bachur, a staunch Republican whose parents met as active duty Army veterans themselves. Like Hansel, she is anxious to exonerate the legacy of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
Army Staff Sergeant John Overfield stands up for our commanders in chief as strongly as he stands up to all the good-natured teasing over his upbringing in neighboring Kentucky.
“Just like Bush didn’t do anything he didn’t say he was going to do, neither has Obama,” said Overfield, a 13-year Army veteran who said the only reason he joined the Army is because his mother told him not to. “Look, you got a guy working at Billy Bob’s Diesel Repair following these wars, but being at war doesn’t mean as much to him as it does to us. We’re the ones fighting it – the two percent who wear the uniform.”
Hearing those words from Overfield was all the fuel Hansel needed to launch into a long monologue as passionate as it was chilling, given the clear suggestion of his larger point: Being at war creates jobs.
“Less than two percent of Americans ever wear the uniform,” Hansel said. “This is our job. If Obama is only doing this [drawdown] to get reelected through a popularity contest, then shame on that. For him to stop it all – to get rid of soldiers wanting to protect this country – seems wrong. Indiana has a high unemployment rate right now, so he’s going to bring a bunch of soldiers home to no jobs? He blew it.”
Hansel’s voice trailed off as Staff Sergeant Overfield looked up from his Field & Stream magazine, staring toward Hansel as if he had just crossed a line of etiquette in second-guessing their commander in chief. “Obama is our president whether you like it or not,” Overfield said with gentle respect. “He is our boss.”
Overfield looked down as Hansel spoke up. “Well I sure as hell hope I can express myself without being lined up against a wall and shot with a cigarette in my mouth,” he said while addressing nobody in particular.
Such public and withering criticism of one’s military chain of command by a uniformed soldier can come with consequences: last month a former Marine sergeant Gary Stein was given an other-than-honorable-discharge for using critical language directed at Obama on his Facebook wall. But Sergeant Hansel – an Obama supporter four years ago – was just warming up.
“Bush made a great decision to go into Iraq,” he said as if never interrupted. “Bush pushed the button, so we had to show the world we care about people… left to starve by Saddam Hussein. We took over Baghdad in 20 days. Maybe after that some of the planning was wrong but, heck, we should have gone into Baghdad back in 1991 after we chased [Hussein] out of Kuwait. The war I fought in was a just war.”
Staff Sergeant Overfield then disappeared around the corner of the concourse to guide dozens of private contractors through the preliminary logistics of traveling to Iraq for up to one year. Hansel and Bachur began gathering their items, knowing the long slog ahead involved anxious and inexperienced travelers.
“What [Hansel] mentioned before is true,” Bachur said. “I’m desperate to go fight. I’m ready.”
Bachur clearly enjoys Hansel’s companionship – much like a brother and sister jostle idle time away – but, more importantly, she commands his respect.
“Once you put this thing on,” said Hansel, pointing to his uniform, “it doesn’t matter if you have breasts. Everybody’s a soldier. I’ve had women underneath me who would pull the trigger long before a college kid did. Black, white. Gay, straight. It just doesn’t matter to any of us.”
Glancing Bachur’s way, Hansel reined himself in. “But it can be hard with women. They’ll spend so much time trying to prove they belong, they miss a lot of the little things.”
“I don’t have anything to prove,” Bachur said softly. “I’m wearing the same uniform as everybody else.”
“Jamie’s right,” Hansel said of his 22-year-old comrade.
Losing his contagious smile and betraying a hint of emotion seems a rarity for Hansel, but as he paired with Bachur to say goodbye, I asked how comfortable he would be fighting on the front lines by her side.
The flow of words from Hansel slowed as he looked toward his friend from Indianapolis.
“We would bleed the same way,” he said before an even longer pause. “We would die the same way, too.”