FORT BRAGG, N.C. — As President Barack Obama closed one chapter in U.S. history Wednesday by marking the end of the war in Iraq, service members, their families and military communities were looking ahead to a future that includes continuing deployments to Afghanistan and Fort Bragg's expansion.
Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Grano, 35, of Los Angeles, returned a month ago after a six-month deployment to Iraq, his third to the country.
"Every time the president comes and talks to the troops, it makes us feel important. This time though it's a lot more important because of the fact that so many people have lives that were lost. Soldiers have been injured. Families have been hurt by being separated for long periods of time because of this war," said Grano, a military intelligence specialist with 16 years in the Army.
Obama's visit is "much more important than people seem to think because we've been doing it so long that it's like become a routine. War is not something that should ever be routine. It should not be something that we're just used to," he said.
Grano and his wife Leilah, 29, know that he may be called to Afghanistan before the U.S. military leaves that country.
"You always have to keep it in the back of your mind," she said. "You could at any point be called into a mission. I'm just grateful he's home right now."
Fort Bragg, home to about 55,000 soldiers and 5,000 Air Force airmen, has seen more than 200 deaths in Iraq. The post community that includes 90,000 additional dependents and civilian employees is expected to grow as Fort Bragg's duties expand beyond being home to the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army's special operations, reserve and psychological operations commands.
While Obama promised continued funds to help returning service members with medical care and employer incentives to employ them, potential Republican challenger Mitt Romney bought advertising space in The Fayetteville Observer on Wednesday for a letter deriding Obama for an economy that remains weak nearly three years after he took office.
"Those who will be leaving the service will need to find jobs. Yet jobs are extraordinarily hard to find," Romney's letter said.
But North Carolina's major military communities have fared better than others. Unemployment in Cumberland County, which includes Fort Bragg, was 9.7 percent in October, 9.0 percent in Camp Lejeune's home of Onslow County, and 8.6 percent in Wayne County, home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The state's unemployment rate was 10.4 percent and the national jobless rate was 9.0 percent.
Because of the continuing conflict in Afghanistan and North Carolina's growing importance to the military, there likely won't be any immediately apparent changes as a result of the Iraq war's end, said Lance DeSpain, executive director of the North Carolina Military Foundation, a nonprofit economic development group.
"In some ways the impact of the drawdown won't be that severe because of the kinds of commands we have here," he said. "We have a lot of fighting units. We don't have a lot of fluff, we have a lot of first-one-in, last-one-out kinds of troops."
Decisions by the Pentagon about restructuring the shape and makeup of the military have seen major changes to the military's presence in North Carolina, like the U.S. Army Forces Command and U.S. Army Reserve Command shaping Fort Bragg into the largest Army installation in the world.
For North Carolina's military installations — and the civilian economies that depend on them — the larger issue may not be the end of the Iraq conflict at all, DeSpain said, but the ongoing debate in Washington over the Pentagon's budget as part of a broader debate over government spending cuts.
"What we're all focused on right now is the budget battle and what's going to come out of that," he said.
The military is a huge part of life in North Carolina, where installations like the Army's Fort Bragg and the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune have been major engines of economic development for decades. Nearly 800,000 veterans live in the state, according to the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs, or over 13 percent of the total population.
The end of the mission in Iraq, then, offers an opportunity to reflect on a conflict that touched many corners of the state. But for many, the reflection will be momentary, since North Carolina is still firmly linked with the strategy of the military, including continued deployments to Afghanistan.
"As far as we're concerned here, nothing's changed," said the Rev. Ron Edwards, a minister at Roosevelt Drive Church of Christ in Jacksonville, home to Camp Lejeune. Between 10 and 20 members of the congregation are deployed to Afghanistan at any given time.
"What we're dealing with today, we've been dealing with for 20 years," he said. "The mission has never really been over since Desert Storm."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio
Breen reported from Raleigh, N.C.