Mayor Paul Bunn paces the parking lot in front of Bradford’s city hall, barking out orders on his cell phone while smoking a cigarette. The puffing and the posturing are habits honed by a year of leading troops through hellfire in Baghdad. “People do what I say, when I say, how I say, and no questions asked,” says Bunn in his staff-sergeant mode, stubbing out the cigarette. The city staff—all two of them—ruin the effect, however, by peering out a city-hall window and smiling indulgently at the boss. It is his first day back at work. They’re just glad to have him back in one piece.
A year and a half ago, the mayor, the police chief and eight other men from this Arkansas town of 819, an hour’s drive north of Little Rock, were called up for duty in Iraq by the Arkansas National Guard; one more was called by the Air Force Reserve. It was a blow not just to the weekend warriors—who were more accustomed to tornado cleanup than fighting—but to their families and Bradford’s civic life as well. The town’s big projects—to update the water system, jail the local methamphetamine dealers and make a clean sweep of the junk in people’s yards—slowly stalled. Given fears for the town’s soldiers, it was as if Bradford held its breath for the year they were in combat, hanging on every newscast, every e-mail and call home. “Nothing progressed,” says Farrah Chambliss, 28, wife of police chief Josh Chambliss, also a staff sergeant in Iraq. “We … just floated.”
The “Gunslingers” of Arkansas’ 39th Infantry Brigade are home now. All the Guardsmen from Bradford survived, their lives and limbs intact after a year of hunting insurgents on the streets of Baghdad’s scariest neighborhoods, like Sadr City and Adhamiyah. Wherever you go in Bradford these days—down to McCall’s Family Restaurant for lunch or up to Edens Quick Check for some gossip—faces light up as the mayor and the police chief turn up, making their daily rounds. But like the estimated 226,000 other weekend soldiers who have returned from service abroad since the 9/11 attacks, Bradford’s men came home to new and jumbled emotions as well as huge celebrations. The mayor, his own business near bankruptcy because of his absence, is edgy and angry. The police chief, his hands noticeably shaky, fears he is quicker on the draw. Their wives, relieved, bemused and touched, notice that their men hug more. But it’s not just their families the men are holding close. It’s also their fears. Here’s how two men and a town are finding their way home, tentatively, from the horrors of Iraq.
The Police Chief
What can you say about a man who shows you a picture of a human heart lying on the road after a bombing in Baghdad, then turns to his whiny 9-month-old daughter and calms her with a gentle “Hey, Toots”? Bradford’s boyish police chief, Josh Chambliss, 30, is sitting in his neat-as-a-pin living room with wife Farrah and baby Chloe, clicking through an electronic album on his computer of photos he took of life in Baghdad: the palace of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and his infamous rape bed. Bloody, blown-up bodies on a street, a severed head, the heart blasted from an Iraqi’s chest lying in the street. “It freaks Farrah out,” Chambliss says with an apologetic look her way. He’s not quite sure why he keeps those pictures or why he keeps looking at them.
Chambliss signed up for the National Guard at age 17 when he was still at Bradford High. He recently re-enlisted for another six years despite narrowly escaping a roadside bomb attack in Iraq just two months before coming home. “I would do it over again if I had to. It’s my job,” he says. Still, he’s more cynical about the mission. “In my first six months, I went from being scared to excited, to ‘Hey, this is kind of fun’ and feeling sorry for the Iraqis,” he says. Then, as attacks on U.S. troops mounted despite American efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild, Chambliss just wanted to get the job done and come home. “Finally,” he says, “it was sheer hatred of the Iraqi people. People would say that is racist, but it’s not. It was a culture clash. We didn’t understand each other.”
Back on the job in Bradford, Chambliss says he notices a change in himself. Driving through town in his police cruiser, he describes the arrest a day earlier of a suspected meth dealer. “I knocked on the front door and got him coming out the back, but I realized I had my hand on my gun and was fixin’ to draw down on him,” says Chambliss. His deputy stopped him, but his eagerness to pull a gun shook him. It still does.
Turning his cruiser into Perry Turner’s tractor shop, Chambliss shifts gears and shares his dreams for Bradford, of the town’s becoming a draw for the weekend arts-and-crafts crowd, its streets lined with majestic Bradford pear trees. But the $500,000 annual town budget and a 50-year-old water system are holding back development. Bradford’s patrol cars have 35-year-old radars, and Chambliss came home from Iraq to find a mere $820 in the department kitty for new purchases. “I’m not going to talk down the war,” says the police chief, a staunch Republican, “but I don’t understand why we’re spending all this money there when we’re having trouble here.” His idea is to raise $10,000 for new police equipment by holding a tractor pull. The last one drew spectators from seven states.
At 37, Paul Bunn is an old hand at combat, an infantryman who served in Panama and the first Gulf War. This latest experience was the worst. His unit in Baghdad, part of the military’s quick-reaction force, which deployed for four-day stretches against insurgents, was hit by 37 improvised explosive devices while in Iraq, 13 in one day in Sadr City. Bunn still has nightmares about a rocket attack on his unit in April 2004. He spent two hours, he says, picking up “pieces and pieces and pieces” of bodies of U.S. soldiers. He remains agitated about the way the military treated the 56 Iraqi translators who worked closely with him on rebuilding projects near the end of his tour; they weren’t allowed to use cafeteria facilities with American soldiers, he says. Four were taken and executed by insurgents, one on Bunn’s last day in Iraq. “I thought I was prepared for anything,” he says, “because it wasn’t my first war.”
The mayor, who grew up one of 14 kids in the nearby city of Searcy, is taking the failure of his insulation business in Little Rock hard as well. “It’s so embarrassing. When I left, it was netting about $300,000 a year, and now it’s $500,000 in the hole,” he says. The tension is exacting a toll. “There’s a disconnect there somewhere,” Bunn says, tapping his head. “My highs are real high and my lows are real low. It’s like a light switch, my mind.” Hoping that other soldiers will seek help, he’s open about taking Paxil, an antidepressant, for posttraumatic stress disorder. Loud noises—even test runs of the town’s tornado siren—unnerve him. He has deactivated all the alarms in his home and even the seat-belt warnings in his cars. “Get into my car and there’s no ding-ding,” he says.
When he left for the war, Bunn gave an enthusiastic speech to Bradford’s sixth-graders about the duty of “citizen soldiers” to help Iraq’s “nation building.” No one realized how much the mayor had changed until April, when several hundred people gathered downtown to dedicate a patriotic wall, dreamed up by the soldiers’ wives and families to honor all the townsfolk who had served in battle from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq. The list started with 25 names and grew to 400. Bunn, not yet officially released from active duty but out on a pass from Fort Sill that weekend, gave a graphic speech on the horrors of duty in Iraq and his struggle to survive, then launched into a tirade about the waste of U.S. resources he saw up close. “Let’s trust the President—about as far as we can throw him,” he said bitterly.
His outburst was the talk of the town for days afterward. Some thought he had gone too far on the politics and gore, though even some of the town’s most conservative citizens were sympathetic. “Coming back from a place like that, everybody understands,” says Tim Clark, music and outreach minister at the mayor’s church, Bradford Baptist. Citizens State Bank officer Carol Cagle, whose grandson Richard Farmer served with Bunn in Iraq, says she had “mixed emotions” about the mayor’s speech. “He was emotional, but Richard is having problems too,” she says, reluctant to share more with an outsider.
“I probably said some things I shouldn’t have,” Bunn says now. He blames his off-kilter speech on a second drug he’s taking for his posttraumatic stress disorder, which, he says with a laugh, makes him “a slobbering idiot.” Says Bunn: “There was no more hard-core Republican than me until I went to Iraq. I’m against abortion and gay rights, and don’t mess with my guns, but I have grown up a lot. When you have spent a year in hell and you have seen the waste of money I have seen …” He lets the thought hang. Bottom line: “I’m neither party now.”
Sitting in his office at city hall, his desk still bare, the mayor surveys a list of priorities. No. 1: the town’s water system. The water, though drinkable, is often discolored because of iron content. Bunn thought he had set repairs in motion when he left, but he came home to find that not a spade of dirt had been turned. While he fumes over the delays caused partly by the city council’s hesitancy to start big projects with him gone, he’s really incensed that Bradford finds itself in financial straits while Washington invests billions in Iraq. “What I don’t understand is how we can rebuild everything we are rebuilding over there, but here in America our infrastructure is falling apart,” he says. “I had to borrow $776,000 for this city for water. They are spending it just like nothing over there. That’s reckless, and that’s wrong. As soon as we build something, they blow it up. That’s a big problem with me, big problem.”
When Bradford was left with no mayor after the Gunslingers deployed, Greba June Edens—Ms. Greba to everyone in town—stepped into the job. She was 78. It was the third time in 21 years she had had to fill in as mayor, part of her duty as the town’s recorder and treasurer; one previous mayor resigned and another pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute it. A grade-school teacher in Bradford for 35 years, Edens had a reputation for being a terror in the classroom—one alderman jokingly swears she used to paddle him—but she’s more of a softie than her soldier boss. Working from her airless cubicle at city hall for 18 months, she says she tried to keep the town on course, even started a Yard of the Month beautification program, but admits she didn’t push and yell like the mayor.
At the school district too, the war created holes that had to be filled and that began to feel like a contagion. First, grade-school librarian Nolan Brown, a grandfather, Vietnam vet and National Guardsman, was called up for a desk job in Baghdad. Math teacher Kathy Mannon stepped into his post. Eleven days later, her husband Dennis, the librarian at the high school, was called up by the Air Force Reserve. Retired teacher Judy Gray, nearing 60, volunteered to fill in for him. Gray’s own daughter Regina Jones had just seen her husband Albert leave for Iraq too. Jones, an elementary-school teacher, says the call-up was a strain on the town’s children, since most knew someone going off to war. “With them all being National Guard” rather than active military, she says, “it was even more of a shock.”
The wives struggled. Farrah Chambliss, pregnant with the police chief’s first child, moved in with her mother even as she continued working as a sales rep for a uniform company. Angela Bunn, the mayor’s wife, found herself with four kids at home, trying to juggle her regular substitute-teaching job with her husband’s insulation business. Handling mold complaints while worrying about his living or dying was tough. “I was taking Paxil and Prozac,” she says. “People said, ‘You’re handling this well,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s the purpose of the medicine.’ But I still worried. I would have panic attacks at night, not in front of the kids. I’d go sit in the closet and cry.”
Now that the mayor and the police chief are back, life in Bradford is settling into old patterns. The short-order cook at McCall’s forgot the mayor’s lunch order on Bunn’s first day back. The men of the “round table,” who gather to gossip every morning and night at Edens Quick Check, are talking trucking, not war or politics. Back in the safe cocoon of Bradford, the police chief is having regrets about re-upping in the Guard, especially since his daughter took her first step. “I believe in God and country and making a sacrifice without crying about it,” says Chambliss. “If I had to go back, I would. But I feel like a guy should only have to go once.”
The mayor, meanwhile, is not due to get out of the Guard until 2009. He has been ordered by his doctors to relax-not that he often succeeds. He finished his first day back at work by personally bushhogging the dense brush on a lot belonging to the town. He issued 46 condemnation notices against residents—six against one alderman—for having junk in their yards last week. His wife reports with a smile that he sometimes forgets where he is and barks, “Do what I say, when I say, how I say” at home too. She just ignores him—one sign, anyway, that life is trying to return to normal in Bradford, Ark.