There are three things you don't talk about at Gilly's, a soldiers' bar near Fort Stewart Army base in Hinesville, Ga. "Politics, religion and work," says the bartender, a military wife. But when the subject of the Iraq prison scandal is broached, the patrons at Gilly's are quick to break the house rules. "For 23 years I wore that uniform, and this was the first time I was ashamed of it," says Will Blackman, a leather-skinned veteran who retired as a staff sergeant in 2002 after serving in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Fort Stewart is home to the Army's 15,000-member 3rd Infantry Division. The 3rd ID is called the Rock of the Marne for its heroism in World War I--a legacy that makes its troops all the more indignant about the outrages at Abu Ghraib. Says Blackman: "This is a canker sore."
The soldiers of Fort Stewart are feeling a mix of anger, betrayal and fear as they face an increasingly uncertain future in Iraq. At Gilly's the active soldiers sitting near Blackman jump in, clearly eager for a chance to vent. Some express disgust. But wherever they cast the blame, they all agree on one thing: though a handful of U.S. troops may be responsible for Abu Ghraib, it is the thousands of servicemen and -women who are in Iraq and who, like the troops from the Rock of the Marne, may be going back there soon who have to face the rage the prison abuse has stoked.
Fears are spreading that the scandal will make their job in Iraq more difficult. Private First Class Travis Goss, 22, of the 3rd ID's 396th Transportation Company, says even "little things gradually build up to make us lose the Iraqis' support." Goss, who just returned from Iraq in January, tries not to think about Abu Ghraib. He and his wife and two young children share a neat ranch house decorated with patriotic slogans and flags, including a homemade Old Glory made from the kids' hand-and footprints. Abu Ghraib, he suggests, is no little thing. Says his wife Lindsay, 22, a member of Fort Stewart's Family Readiness Group: "It makes all the soldiers look bad."
For many, it's hard to know where to place the blame. Some accuse the press of overblowing the abuses, obscuring the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But plenty of soldiers are beginning to question the mission there. At Baldino's, a submarine-sandwich shop near the base, a young specialist gripes that Iraq is hurting Army morale. His embarrassed sergeant steps in and urges a TIME reporter not to get his trooper in trouble.
Back at Gilly's the soldiers are outraged that so far only low-level troops have been collared for the prison abuses. The banter turns to what kind of behavior is acceptable in war. One Vietnam vet at the bar recalls atrocities: "I knew guys in Vietnam with dried ears and penises hanging from their dog tags," he says. "What these guys did in Iraq was bad, and they ought to burn for it, but it's not the worst thing we've done in a war."