FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - On two of the nation's key military bases, where young American troops get ready for war and recover from it, young Americans in uniform have mixed feelings about President Bush's wartime leadership.
Much like their civilian peers, many of the mature teenagers and budding twentysomethings who are fighting the war in Iraq question Bush's international savvy but admire his steadfast, decisive streak.
Whatever their doubts about their commander-in-chief, however, young soldiers don't think much of his Democratic opponent. They're skeptical, and often sharply derisive, about Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, whom they repeatedly call weak-kneed and too easily swayed.
"If you're running for president, I know you're going to lie," said Marine Lance Cpl. Shane Samuels, 19, of New York, who's stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. "But, damn - this guy (Kerry) has been caught lying so many times."
Samuels, who's anticipating deployment to the Middle East next summer and has watched friends leave for yearlong tours, said "Bush jumped the gun" in Iraq.
"We elected an idiot president. ... He's like Mike Tyson," said Samuels.
Despite his misgivings about the president's intellect, he said Bush has proven himself to be more unflappable than Kerry, and he's supporting Bush's re-election bid. "Don't get me wrong ... he's a good president," Samuels said.
In two days of interviews at Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, an Army installation in Fayetteville, young troops said the president enjoys broad support from those in uniform. It's a backing strengthened in no small part by Bush's support for pay increases, they said.
Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Harmon, 20, from West Virginia, returned this month to Camp Lejeune after seven months in Iraq. Although he hasn't followed politics closely, Harmon said he's supporting Bush because of the president's steady, resolute tenor.
Army Sgt. Eric Hernandez, 25, of Jersey City, N.J., said Bush's support at Fort Bragg is evident in the abundance of Bush-Cheney bumper stickers. "I haven't seen a John Kerry sign anywhere," Hernandez said.
Hernandez said he'll pick a candidate - but only after he starts studying both men's politics.
Worries over Bush's motives for going to war have weakened some troops' support. Others wish America would withdraw from Iraq.
Army Spc. William Hebb, a 23-year-old Ohioan who spent six months in Kuwait last year, said he's voting for Bush because it's unwise to switch leadership during a war. But "I'm not going to say if I like the way he's handled" the war, Hebb added.
A handful were more blunt.
"I'd probably vote for a monkey if he was running against Bush," said Spc. Chris Schrader, 20, another Ohioan based at Fort Bragg. The Iraq war, he said, was based on "the wrong reasons at the wrong time."
Likewise, said Keith Johnson, 20, "I believe all Bush really wanted is power. ... Now it's just about how we can get more power."
Johnson, a Marine from Elizabeth, N.J., expects to be deployed to the Middle East in January. He said Saddam Hussein's ouster was the Iraq war's key objective. Because that mission's been fulfilled, he said, Americans should pull out and leave Iraqis to rebuild their land on their own. Johnson is leaning toward voting for Kerry.
But Army cadet Samantha Hamm said she has her doubts about the Democrat because of his explanations of his position on Iraq.
"I don't particularly care for Kerry," said Hamm, who's enrolled in Penn State University's ROTC program. "I don't think he makes up his mind very well."
Others troops at the North Carolina bases conceded, somewhat sheepishly, that they haven't really been watching the race for the White House and know strikingly little about Kerry. With workdays much longer than eight hours, they haven't had the time, they said, adding that they'll decide before Nov. 2.
Some soldiers and Marines worry that Kerry, if elected, would withdraw troops from Iraq. That would mean that those who've been killed there died for nothing, they said.
"Then all this is in vain," said 20-year-old Marine Pfc. Scott Courtright, who'll go to Iraq in about a year.
Which isn't to say that leaving for tours of unknown duration is easy, the young warriors said.
"You get reluctant when it comes down to it - leaving my girlfriend, my family, going over there," said Marine Pfc. Nicholas Lutz, 19, of Menomonie, Wis. An undecided voter, he's scheduled to head to Iraq in about a year.
Kerry's combat experience in Vietnam, Lutz said, gives the Democrat firsthand insight that Bush lacks - and, Lutz hopes, a reluctance to send more troops to Iraq.
"I wish we'd get the hell out," said Lutz, who hails from a firmly Republican family. "The terrorist groups over there are so scattered, we don't know who we're fighting."
Lutz was the exception, though, in discussions about Kerry's status as a combat veteran. Young troops mostly said they're unconcerned with Bush's and Kerry's military records during the Vietnam War era. They're looking for a leader who's unflappable - a trait that Bush has demonstrated, they said.
"Just because a person didn't go to war doesn't mean they wouldn't be a good leader," said Courtright, whose home is in Schenectady, N.Y. "There's been many great presidents who've never been to war."
"Bush scammed out of Vietnam, but he's shown he can be a military leader," said Marine Lance Cpl. George Ryan Mehaffey, 19, of Richmond, Va.
Though he's an undecided voter, Mehaffey said he likes Bush and fully supports the war.
As for Kerry, Mehaffey said, "It's not so much that I don't think he would" complete the war effort. "I don't know if he would."
© Knight Ridder 2004