JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — After five years of war in Iraq, the rhythm of troop deployments and homecomings in this military community has evolved into a steady pulse.
With every unit that leaves nearby Camp Lejeune, far-flung families convene to wish loved ones Godspeed. Every week, young Marines roll into town to have their heads shorn. War has become familiar, the way an arthritic ache becomes familiar to its sufferer.
"You'd think people would be talking about it all the time," said Terrence Bannerman, 33, whose Platinum Cuts opens early Tuesday mornings for the Marines tumbling out of Greyhound buses. "But they're accustomed."
As Onslow County prepares to vote in Tuesday's primary, many residents are wrestling with the tension between their support for the troops and frustration with the war itself. The war issue has propelled a candidate trying to unseat seven-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Walter Jones.
Jones, a Farmville Republican, angered his GOP base when he flipped on the war in Iraq, first voting to authorize it, then deciding he could no longer accept it. A former supporter, Joe McLaughlin, has taken him on, saying Jones doesn't represent North Carolina's values.
But like Jones, others have changed their minds. At Platinum Cuts, Bannerman and his business partner, Omar McAllister, have heard opinions evolve in recent years. Over time, more clients walk in on prosthetics, or with burned faces, or telling of the breakdowns they suffered in the dust of Iraq.
"The troops whose hair I cut, they say they don't want us over there," Bannerman said.
"I'm not all against the war," added McAllister, 34. "I think there's a better way to go about it."
Bannerman is a Democrat; McAllister is Republican.
Jones' district spreads across 17 counties in Eastern North Carolina, dipping inland among the marshlands and then curling along the coast, through the Outer Banks to the Virginia state line.
But it is in Onslow County, home to the Marine Corps' massive Camp Lejeune, where Osprey aircraft cut across the sky and N.C. 24 is dubbed "Freedom Way," that the district's military heart beats strongest. Here, in this corner of the 3rd Congressional District, the war feels very close.
In August, Jennifer Lemasters, 36, of Hubert, will see her husband off to his fourth deployment. She wants Iraq taken care of now so her boys, ages 10 and 13, won't be fighting there a decade from now should they join the military.
"I don't want my husband getting shot at every day, but I do think they should be there, and I support the fact that they're there," Lemasters said.
Yet she supports Jones despite his anti-war views, saying they don't have to agree on everything.
It can be easy to forget, in the hubbub surrounding the Democratic presidential race, that here in the Tar Heel state, one of Congress' best-known anti-war mavericks is fighting for political survival in next week's primary.
Efforts to reach Jones were unsuccessful, but he has repeatedly said the war needs to end.
"The Iraqi leaders have got to understand that we have given so much blood, so much money, that they're going to have to say to the American people that they're ready now to take responsibility," Jones said late last year.
The congressman hasn't appeared at many GOP fundraisers this spring and didn't attend the 3rd Congressional District Republican convention last weekend. Meanwhile, straw polls at Republican dinners in five counties have gone for challenger McLaughlin, an Army veteran and former Onslow County commissioner.
"There ain't no gray area between supporting the troops and supporting the command," said Bob Pruett, chairman of the district's Republican party, who must remain neutral in the race. "You can't go around bashing Bush and the decision to go into Iraq and also say, 'I'm supporting the troops.' "
But beyond the GOP activists, views on the war are complicated.
In Swansboro, garden shop owner Michael Stanley, 35, wrestles with his emotions. He hates the idea of a timetable for withdrawal, because he thinks the United States has to take care of the problems it caused.
"If the politicians would stay out of it and let them do their job, they probably would do better," Stanley said. He plans to vote for Jones.
Onslow is the most populous county in the 3rd District and supplies nearly 20 percent of the registered Republican voters, making it critical to next week's primary.
"The question is, How much support does he have down there?" asked Al Klemm, president of the Down East Republican Club in Beaufort County.
"There's a lot of people upset with the situation with Walter Jones."
There are also a lot of people who understand where Jones is coming from. Lucas Cardona, a Swansboro police officer, is a former Marine who spent 14 months in Iraq with his Army National Guard unit. Some of his old Marine friends have been killed.
"We've still got people dying over there that don't need to be dying," said Cardona, 27. "Sometimes it seems like the whole reason we're going over there is pretty much over."
McLaughlin thinks that focusing on Iraq alone is too narrow a view.
"The war against radical Islamic jihad has multiple fronts," he said. "It would set us back to just pull out. To surrender at any cost is a recipe for disaster."
He has spent weeks canvassing in populous towns such as Jacksonville and Morehead City, figuring his success will hinge on educated Republican activists.
That includes people such as Neal Rowland, 31, owner of Cubbie's restaurant in Beaufort, who yanked pictures of Jones off the eatery's walls after the congressman denounced both the war and Rowland's "freedom fries" -- named to snub France after it refused to support the Iraq war.
Rowland will host McLaughlin's election night party Tuesday. "Things are moving as we want over there," Rowland said this week as he juggled baskets of cheeseburgers and freedom fries adorned with tiny paper flags. "We're bringing democracy to them."