WASHINGTON — A few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bo Ward put these words on the sign at his 12-chair barbershop near the main gate at Fort Campbell: "President Bush, show no mercy. Kick their ass!"
But almost six years later, and after more than four years of war in Iraq, Ward's no longer so sure.
"Soldiers are tired; wives are tired; families are getting worn down," Ward said. "I know these boys can't just pick up and come home from Iraq, but we need some kind of exit plan."
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's recent visit to Fort Campbell highlighted the emotional strain and frustration this southwestern Kentucky military town is feeling as the 101st Airborne Division prepares for its third deployment since the Iraq war began.
"We're sorry that the effort in Iraq has been as difficult as it has been," McConnell said Friday on CNN, "but giving up and letting the terrorists come into this country isn't a good plan."
As the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, McConnell is in a precarious position as he tries to assuage concerns about the war back home and steer his party through a debate on funding an increasingly unpopular war backed by a president whose support is also on the wane. Recently, seven Senate Republicans, including Richard Lugar of Indiana, have backed away from the president's Iraq war strategy.
"This is someone who has to walk a tightrope every day," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst and managing editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Someone who has to herd the cats that make up the Republican conference."
McConnell, who is up for re-election next year, also faces increasing pressure in Kentucky from Democrats. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a national group, launched commercials this week that are highly critical of the senator's leadership on the war and are aimed at eroding support in his home state.
Kentucky has given heavily to the war effort. Fort Campbell's latest round of deployments will push to 23,000 the number of soldiers from the post serving in the Middle East conflict.
At Fort Campbell, the place Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, once called home, feelings about ongoing efforts in the Middle East and Republican leadership during the war are mixed.
On any given weekday, Ward's barbershop, the fort's largest, is a place where privates and senior officers sit side by side waiting for a trim. Ward chats with these soldiers as he snips away. And he says he thinks many of them now would be happy to see Washington set a date for leaving Iraq.
"Right now, you've got first sergeants and sergeant majors and E-7s and E-8s that are getting out of the army right and left," Ward said. "They're saying `I've been deployed three times, I'm pressing my luck, I'm not going to give up my life and my family for something where there's no end to it.'"
Karla Tucker works at a furniture store just down the street where many military families shop. She also says that many soldiers, exhausted by repeated deployments, are deciding not to "re-up" as their enlistments end.
"These young men and women are coming back with all kinds of problems; some of them are on anti-depressants; their marriages are in trouble," Tucker said. "There are families right and left that are deciding not to hang around; they're leaving here and going home. I personally have not heard anyone say they're going to re-enlist. It's sad."
The complex range of emotions surrounding those sacrifices isn't lost on McConnell. Neither are figures such as those from a recent Gallup poll that show President Bush's approval rating at 29 percent and 71 percent of Americans favoring a proposal to remove almost all U.S. troops from Iraq by April 2008.
"I suspect he feels an obligation to the president. Even if he's feeling pressures in Kentucky, he doesn't have the same latitude as someone else, because they don't have his leadership responsibilities," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia and author of "The New Politics of the Old South."
The Republican National Committee and McConnell's campaign staff maintain he isn't concerned about the type of Republican backlash that helped the Democrats wrest congressional control during the last midterm elections.
"The Democrats want to say McConnell is vulnerable. I want to be taller. That doesn't mean it'll happen," said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the RNC.
However, Democrats are hoping discontent about the war in Iraq will erode McConnell's base of support.
"Mitch McConnell is on the floor of the U.S. Senate every day standing in the way of changing policy in Iraq," said DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller. "He is the face of the party. When the party marches lock-step with the president's policies, then in 2008 the voters will hold them accountable."
(Halimah Abdullah reported from Washington, Jim Warren from Lexington, Ky.)