FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina – Outside the gates of nearly every Army fort, Marine base or other installation sit the haunts of the troops who find refuge away from barracks life, training drudgery and deployment rigors.
The watering holes of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, here are no different.
But there are two, south of the fort and split unevenly by All American Highway, that cater to military, veterans and friends of both in special ways.
One side of that highway is Legends Pub, an overlapping military-veteran-biker bar run by Holly Whitley. She moved to Bragg with her first husband back in 1979. Decades before, the building that now houses her pub was an all-night barbershop with sleeping quarters upstairs for the staff.
A bus route from the fort hauled soldiers to and from to freshen up their haircuts.
After working a few years in other bars, mainly those serving bikers back before dentists were hauling Harley Davidsons on trailers to meets, she saw that the spot was for sale and opened Legends in 1996.
It’s a tight, shotgun-style place with one pool table, biker and military artwork and knick-knacks. A friendly dog often roaming the floor, checking out the customers.
Where an Army Vietnam War veteran regales an early twentysomething Air Force airman about what Fayetteville was like in the 1960s.
For Whitley, it’s been a kind of home for more than two decades. She still remembers before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 when one of her friends, Air Force Staff Sgt. Scott Sather was leaving.
“He said, ‘If anything happens to me I want you to have a party here. I love this bar,’ ” she said.
“I said, ‘just come home and we’ll have a party for you,’ ” she said.
And he didn’t come home.
The funeral was on Pope Air Force Base; they got buses to attend. Now his picture is on their wall, along with others who’ve been lost. From soldiers to bikers and even a beloved dog.
Since then she’s seen many a happy and sad moment pass through.
“I’ve watched whole careers go by,” she said.
Enough time has passed that she’s hosted weddings, fundraisers, retirements, deployments and homecomings.
Even in this Army town, she’s made a tradition of hosting a Marine Corps Birthday party every November.
It’s a biker bar in a military town, she likes to say.
“But every walk of life is welcome here,” Whitley said.
On the other side of the highway, a few miles away, Charlie Mike’s on any given night a cluster of Special Forces soldiers and veterans can be found sipping beers, trading stories or just listening to the occasionally live band or an assortment of juke box music from country to hip hop.
The walls are strewn with the memorabilia of service. Mostly Army, of course. But even a Navy SEAL flag hangs there, too.
“It’s like a military version of Cheers,” said Jillian Hughes, manager and wife of a Green Beret.
But it’s on a wall in the corner of the bar where a visitor might find themselves, scanning faces that overlook one of the pool tables.
Robert Hash is a retired Green Beret who spent time with 10th Special Forces Group and more than a decade with 3rd Special Forces Group here at Bragg.
He owns the bar. But that wasn’t his choice at first, he told Army Times, smiling.
“My wife, she wanted to do this,” Hash said. The bar’s name has a meaning, Charlie Mike translates to “Continue Mission” in radio shorthand.
Keep going, despite what obstacles you face.
Michele Curtis, a former Army physician’s assistant, later turned flight surgeon officer, opened the bar back in 2006. Her father was a retired SF command sergeant major.
Hash’s wife Iris loved the place. So, in 2015 when Curtis was having health problems, the couple bought the bar and the restaurant next door.
And with the bar came that wall in the corner.
A collection of portraits, men both young and old. All who had gone before, all who wore the Green Beret.
Each of the faces has a story. All died in service or as a result of it, after 9/11. On a table nearby is a binder full of their stories.
Since Iris and Hash took it over, each of the portraits now rests in identical wooden frames on a wall-mounted wooden rail that allows for them to slide in and out, rather than hang from nails.
That’s important, because on the anniversary of each soldier’s death their portrait comes off the wall to sit on the bar.
Early that evening, a crowd gathers. Sometimes teammates are there, sometimes widows, always friends. They read the soldier’s citation. They say a few words. They toast their drinks.
A year ago, Iris passed.
Hash didn’t blink about keeping on with the bar.
“I believe that Charlie Mike’s has become like a cornerstone in the community, some place to go and let your hair down,” Hash said. “I spent over 34 years in SF. It means a lot to me. A lot of people worry when they get out they won’t see their guys anymore. Sometimes it feels like I still see those guys all the time.”
Despite the memorials, or maybe because of them, the bonds are tight, the laughter loud, even on a random weeknight at Charlie Mike’s.
Hash leans in to share another story over the noise of the band and bar.
One afternoon a while back he was in the bar and, as he recalls, with about 40 patrons, half of them SF or former SF.
It was light outside still and the jukebox was going.
A young man, looking of Middle Eastern descent, came walking down the sidewalk in the strip mall front where the bar sits.
He had a bag over his shoulder. He stopped by their door. He put his bag down and got out his cell phone.
He put the cell back in his pocket and walks in the door, sitting the bag down and walks back outside to use the phone.
Everyone was looking. Who’s this guy, is he going to clack one off in the door of the bar?
“It went from loud in here to dead silent,” Hash said. The grizzled, retired warrant officer slid off his chair, walked over to the young man and asked if he could help him.
He told him he was delivering a pizza.
“We all thought it was pretty funny … after the fact,” he said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.