Next time you find yourself forgetting that it's real blood about to be spilled from the real veins of really young Americans, come spend a day in the flattop Marine town of Jacksonville, where even the tattooists' hearts are aching.
"A lot of 'em are young and scared to be going over," says Rachael Mays of the Sleeping Dragon tattoo parlor. "They come in for their meat tags. You know, dog tags for the skin. Their name, rank, serial number, religion, blood type and gas-mask size. They want 'em in case they're blown in half. Then at least some part of them can come back to their folks."
So far, 13,000 of the 43,000 Marines and sailors at nearby Camp Lejeune have left, with 3,000 more scheduled for deployment. War may be not much more than a bar argument where you live, but here it's a bucket of ice water in the face. At the base theater, 600 Marines pack the joint but not because Catch Me If You Can is playing. They're working on their wills Moonie-style under the direction of a base attorney. One wants Over the Rainbow played at his funeral. Another wills all 50 guys in his company $10 each. His savings just barely cover it.
"They pretend not to be scared, but they are," says Gia, 31, a local prostitute. "I give them more time than I should, just 'cause they want to talk." Though they can't say they're deploying the next morning, she can tell. "Usually one of my articles of clothing will turn up missing. I'll come back for it, and they're like, 'Teddy? There's no teddy around here.'" She lets it go. Hey, it's for the war effort, right?
At the Catholic church, the priests haven't seen Saturday confession lines like these in years. "I think the war is unjust," says Father Thomas Davis, who has worn out both ears listening to Marines. "But these young men have no choice. I try to send them off with some peace."
Not that wartime here is without joy. At least the local violin player is feasting. Maura Kropke plays at weddings, and Marines have been making her cell phone dance. "Put it this way: I'm doing a whole lot of Tuesday-morning and Wednesday-afternoon weddings lately," she says. "They plan a wedding in three days, and they pull it off, no matter what, even in downpours. I've seen brides coming down the aisle with umbrellas held over them."
Marine brides find themselves alone soon enough. Take Sally Brown, 22. She's a legal receptionist whose husband of two years shipped out last week to man his gunnery position on top of an amphibious Amtrak vehicle. Now her stomach is a pretzel. He couldn't even tell her where he was going. "I have no idea when I'm going to hear from him again," she says. Like a lot of other military wives, she goes from petrified to patriotic to pissed. "Bush is doing this because of his father," she charges. "That's the only reason. Would Bush be doing this if he were sending his daughters?"
Nobody in this military town talks about post-Iraq rebuilding plans. No one skims over the fighting and dying and winning of a war as if they were instructions on a waffle iron. It's real here, even for experts in faking it, like exotic dancer Charlotte Johnson. Marines keep handing her their dog tags before they go. "I think they want someone waiting for them," she says. "I always tell them, 'I'll give them back to you when you get home.' But I know not all of them will."