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Marine Base Neighbors React to Haditha Allegations

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Now to the allegations of military atrocities in Haditha. Up to two-dozen residents of that town were killed. The deaths have been blamed on U.S. Marines based at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spent Monday near the camp in a town called Oceanside, talking to locals about the Haditha news.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

It's early morning in Oceanside, the town that sits next to Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine base in the world.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GRIGSBY BATES: The town's main street, Coach Highway, is lined with mom and pop shops, selling everything from Mexican food to assault equipment.

(Soundbite of locomotive whistle)

GRIGSBY BATES: At the foot of downtown, Amtrak's Pacific Surf Rider rolls through each day. Oceanside is clearly a town with military ties. American flags are hung on poles, draped on walls, even painted on the slanted roof of a local car dealership. And it's a rare business that doesn't have a yellow ribbon, or a message of troop support prominently displayed. John Daley is no exception. He's one of the owners of the 101 Café. Daley, an Oceanside native, is tan and fit with a shaved head that blends right in with his military customers. He says there hasn't been a lot of chat about the Haditha killings in his place.

Mr. JOHN DALEY (Owner, 101 Cafe): Yes, we take a little time to look at these things and realize that these are one, allegations, and two, in all wars, you find these allegations and quite a few of them turn out to be not true. So it's just waiting to see exactly what the truth is.

GRIGSBY BATES: Over in the corner, Claude Miller(ph) is finishing up breakfast in a booth by the window. He's been coming here since 1940. The 83-year-old World War II vet says Haditha has echoes of something Germans soldiers shared with him when he became friendly with a few of them after the war.

Mr. CLAUDE MILLER (WWII Veteran): They said that when they did the bombing of Berlin, and there was no aircraft to shoot down, the escort planes would go through the countryside and shoot cattle and strafe the small, little communities. And we were part of that, too. So...

GRIGSBY BATES: The news from Haditha is sad, but not surprising, say peace activists Renee Anderson and Jennifer Suchmin(ph), who paused to talk on the town's main street.

Ms. RENEE ANDERSON (Protestor): Our troops just shouldn't be there period, and I think it's our government that is sending them over there knowing that this is part of war, and that innocent people are going to be killed.

Ms. JENNIFER SUCHMIN (Protestor): When we heard about it, we just felt like that is war. You know, that probably more horrible things like that have happened, and we haven't been told about it. I'm amazed we're being told. And I guess what, it had happened in November?

Ms. ANDERSON: Yes.

Ms. SUCHMIN: So it took a while.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

GRIGSBY BATES: A mile or so away from the thrum of traffic on the main street, a group of men fishes from the pier. The sound of the sea is muted by marine fog. Richard Vaughn(ph) turns from his line to concede the marines accused of atrocities in Haditha are in a tough spot.

Mr. RICHARD VAUGHN (Fisherman): It's their job. They should know, you know, before they go into a situation, how to deal with every type that comes up. But I don't know all the facts behind, you know, what's exactly going on in the case against those gentleman, but there's two sides to the story. I'm looking forward to hearing both of them.

GRIGSBY BATES: Over at Jitters, an upscale coffee house, City Councilman Rocky Chavez says he's reserving judgment on Haditha, as are most of his constituents. So many people in town have marine connections.

Mr. ROCKY CHAVEZ (City Councilman): That doesn't mean they don't question the whole plan of the Iraqi war, where to land or how it's going to end, or the national objectors. But there's no doubt that everybody here is behind the service people.

GRIGSBY BATES: And their support is manifested in different ways. Pendleton has suffered the largest member of marine deaths in the Iraq war. Dennis Gardener(ph) is a dignified Navy vet, who owns a furniture business in town.

Mr. DENNIS GARDENER (Navy Veteran, Furniture Store Owner): It really touches home when they're your marines that maybe you've served and may be were their customers as well. And I have wives with wounded and dead marines come in all the time. It really hurts, like losing part of your family almost.

(Soundbite of locomotive whistle)

GRIGSBY BATES: After Haditha, Oceanside feels a lot like an emergency room where family members gather after a gruesome accident. They're preparing for the worst, but they're hoping their people will come out of this okay. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of locomotive whistle)

BRAND: For reaction to the Haditha incident from around the globe, you can read a sampling of newspaper editorials and blog commentaries in our special Differences of Opinion feature at our Web site, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.