By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Photo by Jack GouldI was okay until I saw the M-16. I'd done just as Kathleen instructed: drove down Katella Avenue, took a right at Lexington—where stands the great Katella Deli—and drove two short blocks past rows of small family homes to the gate of the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos. A guard appeared, I showed him my driver's license and told him I was there to see Kathleen about the banquet facilities. He looked at me, then he looked at the two soldiers standing in front of my minivan—one unarmed, one with a rifle slung comfortably across her chest like a baby harness. The guard asked me exactly which building I wanted to go to, and though I knew the answer, I went blank, and the solider with the rifle started toward the van.
"Oh," the guard said in a welcome tone of recognition. "Yeah, right, Kathleen."
Breathing easier, I listened in an overly serious manner as he told me to take the road ahead to where the tank was, veer left and head to the end. I did as I was told, and though the posted speed limit was 25 miles per hour, I did it at 20. I drove past rocket-loaded helicopters and camouflage trucks and a sit-down mower outfitted with an American flag. I got to my appointed building and walked inside—being careful to look neither left nor right—amid the whir of a returning Blackhawk and set about to find Kathleen.
This was March 27. The day before, 15 Iraqi civilians—the Iraqis claim 36—had been killed in a Baghdad neighborhood, their bodies described as charred, twisted and smoldering. Some reports said they'd been killed by American cruise missiles, precision-guided weapons that had targeted Iraqi missiles and launchers in the area but apparently veered and slammed into an area of homes and, the AP reported, "inexpensive restaurants."
A statement from U.S. Central Command placed blame for the deaths on the Iraqis since "most of the [Iraqi] missiles were positioned less than 300 feet from homes. . . . In some cases, such damage is unavoidable when the [Iraqi] regime places military weapons near civilian areas." Later, Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke said the fact the Iraqis had placed weapons 300 feet away from homes was "a sign of the brutality of this regime and how little they care about civilians."
But if that's true, what are we to think about the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, nestled among homes and apartment buildings, some just a couple of hundred feet from the base entrance? (As for inexpensive restaurants, well, you can get the best turkey sandwich in the county two blocks away at the Katella Deli for six bucks.) In my short time there, the people on the base seemedto care about civilians—even the soldier with the rifle was courteous. More than that, the base actually seemed a part of the community, seemed—oh, what's that word everyone's using—embedded in the community. It has four Little League baseball fields, is the site of the Los Alamitos 10K and plays host to an annual Independence Day fireworks spectacular that attracts tens of thousands.
Come to think of it, aren't most military installations—and whatever they're packing—usually a part of the neighborhood? Don't bases tend to be like prisons, causing whole towns to flower around them to serve them? I mean, less than an hour down the road at Camp Pendleton, they have civilians living on the base and working at fast-food joints and daycare centers onthe base. Less than an hour south from there in San Diego, the military and its hardware not only operate among civilians but also are tourist attractions. Aircraft carriers dock near smart shops, not-so-inexpensive restaurants and luxury hotels, so much so that if one of those carriers were to be attacked, the collateral damage would likely include a fabulous brunch in the Prince of Wales Room at Loews Coronado Resort Hotel.
But I don't think people think about this much. No more than the folks in Los Alamitos' upscale Rossmoor district or at St. Hedwig's Catholic Church think about the implications beat out by the Blackhawks returning from their training missions as they fly over the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.
* * *
Though I got to the building, I had no idea where I was going, and I was suddenly seized with the fear I would wander into a forbidden area. It was all very quiet, the halls were empty, and I became increasingly nervous that I was somewhere I shouldn't be, and then I became more nervous that I was looking increasingly nervous—and therefore guilty—and tried my best not to look nervous so people wouldn't notice me, but that sent me into a near panic when I thought that people—military people with M-16s—might think I was trying too hard not to be noticed. I kept walking. Trying to look like someone who had a reason to be there—to look at some of the facilities—but I didn't know what I should look at and what would get me sent to Guantanamo; I needed Kathleen for that.