Joe's Road Trip 2012

Road Trip 2012, Day 1: The Vets Aren’t Happy

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Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

A group of veterans (L to R: Joseph Holden, Ray Penninpede, Dan Okoniewski, Arthur Rogers) speak with Joe Klein on his annual road trip at Richard's Coffee Shop and Military Museum in Mooresville, N.C., on Friday, June 1, 2012.

Mooresville, North Carolina

An early omen? I was dropped at the National Car Rental SUV row this morning in Charlotte to pick up a vehicle for the trip. There were a couple of KIAs, a VW, a Jeep Patriot. I chose the Jeep. This is America, bud. That’s right, and the Jeep wouldn’t start. So I was ready to go Korean when I noticed a Ford Escape had just arrived, wet from the wash, and I nabbed it–the Great Escape is now the official vehicle of Road Trip 2012

My first stop was up the road from Charlotte in Mooresville, where my old friends, John Gallina and Dale Beatty, the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which builds housing for wounded veterans,  had set up a focus group of older veterans to talk about politics. We met in a coffee shop, museum and general hang out for veterans on Main Street. There were seven of them assembled and, after introductions, I asked, “So, are you Republicans or Democrats?” This turned out to be a trick question, and the trick was on me. Joseph Holden, a World War II veteran born in Britain who worked as a spy for the OSS, “How do you define a democrat? It’s one thing politically, another thing philosophically…and a conservative, what’s that?” Uh-oh. I agreed that these terms were imprecise, except when it came to voting–were they registered as Democrats or Republicans?

“We don’t talk about politics here,” said Ray Penninpede, a Vietnam veteran and former New York City cop.

“It would be too divisive,” said Larry Nosker. “We’d just go around chasing our tails.” Well, I tried again, how do you feel about the country right now?

That worked. They didn’t feel too good about the direction things were headed–and they didn’t seem very divided at all. Most turned out to be Republicans, as I suspected. (Although the former spy Holden seemed to float above affiliation on a cloud of erudition–and shocked everyone when he said that the most advanced countries in the world were semi-socialist states like Norway and Finland.)

But for the rest, two dominant themes emerged. They thought both parties were corrupt and needed to be cleaned out. Larry Nosker suggested that every incumbent be defeated and the capital be moved from Washington, DC, to someplace in America. “The Republicans have money and flaunt it,” he said. “The Democrats have money and hide it. That’s the only difference between them.” The other theme was a general disdain for politicians who ran for President without a military background. They didn’t have much use for Mitt Romney, though I’d guess most will vote for him. And they didn’t like Barack Obama at all. When I asked how Obama had performed as Commander-in-Chief, they started to laugh.

“For the past 50 or 60 years, the culture of our country has been sliding downhill,” said Dan Okoniewski, a Vietnam veteran and retired engineer. His father’s generation–“and he was a better man than me”–had all served in World War II. The values they’d learned in the military had put backbone into the nation, created a generation of great citizens and entrepreneurs. “They really cared about this country,” Dan said, and then he repeated it–and the clear implication was that the succeeding generations, each with a smaller percentage of people who joined the military, had allowed the country to decline.

There was a fair amount of paranoia among the group. Dan said he thought there were people who believed in a “New World Order” that were trying to move the country in a “Marxist/communist” direction. I asked him who these people were, but he wasn’t specific: “When people tell me they want to help veterans, but they don’t help, I start to wonder, ‘what is their agenda?’ I think they’re sinister.” (I got the distinct feeling that he was being diplomatic here: the President was clearly on his mind.)

Another World War II veteran, Arthur Rogers, who worked on the Manhattan Project, said he thought there might be 100,000 sleeper terrorists who had sneaked across the open border. Others merely thought Obama was moving the country toward socialism–and, of course, Obamacare was exhibit A…but when I asked them what was in the bill, nobody had anything to say. I asked them how they thought an idea that began with the Heritage Foundation, was supported by the Republican Party in 1994, and implemented by Mitt Romney in 2006, had suddenly become a socialist plan to control people’s lives–“Well, that’s an interesting question.” Larry Nosker said.

These were good men. They had served proudly and well. They had lived honorable, productive lives and yet they had an extravagantly sinister —that’s an important word,” Dan said–feeling about the country’s trajectory. I know all the traditional answers about where that sense comes from–the country, the economy, the national demographics, the culture have all changed dramatically since these men served their country. But somehow, those answers don’t seem adequate to their concerns.

I asked them what they thought would save the country and their answer was unanimous–and striking: bring back the draft. Everyone should serve 2 years. That would restore the American values that they knew and loved, Dan Okoniewski said. They especially thought every 18-year-old male should experience boot camp: “They need to start off life with someone kicking them in the butt. Hard,” Larry Nosker said. “We need a draft. We shouldn’t be sending this current generation back to Iraq and Afghanistan 3 and 4 times.”

There are plenty of arguments against restoring the draft. But there is one, profound and primal argument in favor and these veterans understood it viscerally: most every society in history has had coming-of-age ceremonies, when boys become men and girls women. We don’t anymore, at least not in any official way–and so increasing numbers of people don’t come of age, officially or unofficially. We are also a country that doesn’t like to tell its citizens what to do. We celebrate freedom. The vets I spoke with today certainly do. They sure didn’t like government mandates, like forced health insurance. But they favored a draft, perhaps the most intrusive mandate of all.

I found this first of many road trip conversations unpredictable and fascinating–with an unexpected conclusion about a controversial topic, the military draft, that isn’t even near the politicians’ agenda this year. Maybe it should be raised every time a politician spouts off about “values” and how we don’t have them, and where we might get them.