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Britain’s Garrison Town Anxious Over War

February 22, 2003

COLCHESTER, England (AP) _ Theresa Scholes’ husband is being shipped overseas again.

As a military wife for more than a decade, she’s used to it _ this time last year he was off to Afghanistan. But now, as her sergeant husband heads to the Persian Gulf and a probable, uncertain war with Iraq, the stakes feel higher.

``I’m apprehensive and nervous,″ said Scholes, whose son-in-law has already shipped out to the Gulf with a tank unit. ``We can’t get insurance for him, and no one will give us any answers.″

Half the 6,000 troops stationed at Colchester garrison in eastern England _ home to the rapid-response 16 Air Assault Brigade _ have already been sent to the Gulf. They are among 40,000 military personnel deployed as Britain’s contribution to the U.S.-led pressure campaign on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

They carry the brunt of a policy which sharply divides the nation, and which brought 750,000 or more people into London’s streets for a peace march last weekend.

``I would prefer more support from the public, but we support ourselves and each other,″ said Lt. Danny Read, a 28-year-old soldier waiting to fly out to the Gulf this week. ``We believe that we are doing the job for a purpose.″

But among the quiet cul-de-sacs of the tidy Colchester subdivision that houses married troops, there’s some sympathy for the protesters’ view.

``A lot of (the troops) don’t agree with it, because they say it’s not our war,″ said Scholes, whose husband is an electrician with the Signal Squadron. ``But it’s their job and they’ll do it.″

Diane Osborne, whose son-in-law serves with the Parachute Regiment, said she thought most soldiers viewed the protests as ``against the war, not against them.″

Neither the troops nor their families know how long they will be gone, and _ if there is a war _ what type of weapons they will encounter. British insurance companies have said they won’t offer coverage for troops headed to the Gulf, or on standby to go, because of the risks they face.

``My son-in-law is quite a toughie, but he was crying,″ said Scholes. ``He’s got two little ones and he doesn’t know if he’ll see them again.″

Colchester, a community of 100,000 some 50 miles east of London that proclaims itself to be Britain’s oldest recorded town, has a 2,000-year military history. There was _ briefly _ a garrison here in Roman times, and 200 years ago thousands of Colchester-based troops stood ready to repel an invasion by Napoleon’s armies.

The red-brick buildings of the Victorian army base garrison sit behind high walls and barbed wire, not far from the town center with its 11th-century castle keep, medieval churches and smattering of half-timbered Tudor houses.

Town and garrison get on peaceably, but even in an army town there is opposition to war. Prime Minister Tony Blair has stoutly backed President Bush’s bid to disarm Iraq by force if necessary, but polls suggest a majority of Britons oppose war without United Nations approval.

Local peace activist Andy Abbot claimed that hundreds of Colchester residents _ traveling by train, car and in nine chartered buses _ marched in London.

For the most part, Colchester has been gearing up for war with quiet professionalism. Trevor Robbins, who manages a military surplus shop next to the garrison, has had a busy few weeks as soldiers customize their gear and buy extra equipment for their desert deployment.

``We’ve had one or two (civilian) people asking for gas masks, but they’re mostly nutters,″ he said. He has had no requests for chemical warfare suits.

For most of the troops, he said, ``it’s a case of get a suntan and see what happens. They don’t see it as going to war. It’s just get out there and get the job done.″

Some military families feel soldiers are being asked to do too many jobs. Britain has military commitments in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. At home, almost 20,000 troops have been called out five times since November to cover for striking firefighters, and there may be more strikes to come.

Fiona McCleery, a 31-year-old legal secretary, is married to a paratrooper whose six-month tour in Northern Ireland had been extended by six weeks.

``When he comes back he’ll have to fight fires,″ she said. ``Still, I’d rather he was over there than in Iraq.″

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