The Marine base that exerts an outsize gravitational pull on Twentynine Palms, Calif. is the largest in the world, and shimmers several miles outside of town in the desert at the foot of the Bullion Mountains.
Twentynine Palms is some two hours drive east of Los Angeles. When you arrive, you know you’re in a military town.
Barber shops advertise “Marine haircuts” and “civilian haircuts” in their signs out front. Banners festoon the light posts and snap in the hot winds, each with the name of a soldier and the image of a yellow ribbon.
Go to the local Denny’s and you’ll you see the little kids with their tired mothers and no daddy in sight, Mom’s breakfast special and the bargain-priced kiddie meals a family splurge.
Our national pundits remark that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to not touch most of us. But in Twentynine Palms, population 14,000-plus, the wars’ presence is as palpable and insistent as July’s 110 degree summer heat.
You can feel it at a desert hide-away called Twentynine Palms Inn, at the gateway of the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s miles from the base and far enough from the highway that the coyote packs yip and yowl in chorus late at night right outside your window.
Built in the 1920s, the inn is made up of violet, lavender and deep orange painted adobe cottages, plus the wood cabins that surround the tiny palm-fringed body of water called the Oasis of Mara.
You can dine pool side at the inn’s restaurant, and if you pay attention as the sky goes twilight, you can see the bats that occasionally flutter overhead and actually hear the swoop of the resident owl.
Pay a little more attention at the restaurant, you notice something else. The wait staff usually includes women much too young for the dark under-eye circles and pinched look of worry their faces carry.
During one dinner, the distracted waitress bobbled the drinks order, had to double-check the entrees, asked again, apologized. A man’s ring dangled from the silver chain around her neck.
She was all of 22.
The stress and anguish throughout the town is painful to see, even for — or maybe even especially for — anybody who opposed the Iraq war and recognized the Administration’s lies that led up to it.
There’s no “Support the Troops, Bring ‘Em Home” stuff in Twentynine Palms. Protest cuts a little close to the bone.
Weekend America did a nice job providing us with a discussion of the thorniness of dissent in Twentynine Palms.
Not much room for protest.
But here’s a statistic that doesn’t reflect much appreciation for the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform — and their families.
The foreclosure rate in Twentynine Palms is up 73 percent from last year.
That’s right — the high tide of support for the troops may have lowered the local volume on dissent but it didn’t stop brokers and lenders from hanging bad loans on military families.
Here’s something sadder — turns out that Twentynine Palms is better off than many military towns.
How about Columbia, S.C., an army training base, with foreclosures up 492 percent? Or Oceanside, CA, adjacent to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, with a 182-percent hike in foreclosures?
For all the sanctimonious cant served up about Our Troops — the President gave up golfing to honor your sacrifice, y’all! — rampaging sub-prime greed fueled by a cynical Gilded Age sensibility allowed lenders to go in and sheep-shear young families that, under great stress, were trying to find an economic toehold.
Foreclosure rates in military towns are four times the national average, according to Realtytrac, which keeps track of such trends. Here’s a TV discussion about it with Patrick Campbell, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Military families were prime targets for sub-prime loan vendors when exotic loan products were all the rage. Frequent moves, the soldiers’ overseas tours and low pay made conventional credit tougher to attain. The real estate markets were so hot, it was easy to believe you could keep up.
In 2008 an enlisted person with two years in service makes $2642 monthly — around $31,700 a year. At eight years, a top grade enlisted person makes $3482 a month — about $41,800 annually.
These figures exclude the lavish $225 monthly combat pay bonus — $2700 for twelve months — for those who qualify.
But the loan products that set the stage for the mortgage industry implosion were out there with marketing muscle behind them and seemingly no regulators to raise an eyebrow.
So the soldiers sign on the dotted line and off they go to war. The real estate market tanks as their loans drastically readjust. Then the default and foreclosure notices.
“Think about how much stress comes with a foreclosure, and then imagine you’re walking the same tightrope while being employed in Baghdad,” Paul Rieckhoff, 33, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a former 1st lieutenant with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, told Bloomberg News
The Veterans Administration does offer some help in renegotiating loans.
And on Friday the Senate approved a foreclosure protection bill. It’s been criticized for being way too little too late. President Bush says he plans to veto it anyway.
Among other things the legislation would do is extend the time a lender has to wait before beginning foreclosure on a returning veteran — from three to nine months after the service member returns.
Really: do the one in five returning veterans who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and depression really need to be negotiating with lenders and keeping track of the months they have left in their homes?
There’s a lot of fuss this election season about what defines of patriotism.
I’ll tell you what it’s not: if you’re Congress, it’s not letting a cynical Administration lead you into a war based on specious and spun intelligence.
If you’re the financial industry, it’s not rigging the economic system to yield maximum profit for a handful before the economy spins to the edge of a cliff and many Americans fall over.
It’s not such a no-holds-barred approach to lending that we now find mortgage defaults at the highest level since the 1930s, with 252,363 foreclosure filings last month alone.
And patriotism sure isn’t sticking military families with bad loans only to put returning troops through yet another wringer stateside when they return home.
Here’s a patriotic idea: What if our country — the last superpower (for now) — weighs more carefully how it gambles the life of its young? And how about we create an economy where the best and only option for a future for so many isn’t multiple tours overseas?
Call it the thanks of a grateful nation.