ST. ROBERT -- Aerosmith blares on the sound system. Glowing neon miniskirts dot the room. A few guys hang out at the pool tables; others watch basketball on muted TVs. It’s Friday night, “drink and drown” time. All the beer you can drink for $10 or all the liquor for $15. It’s still early, and the girls are segregated at their own tables. No one seems to have heard of the idea that smoking might be hazardous to the health.
Seems like any club scene, any small town, anyplace. But the Rockin’ R is about a mile from Ft. Leonard Wood, where about 7,000 young military men and women train for the combat they may soon see in Iraq. Sometimes, they end up here or at one of the many nearby nightspots – and the stress they come to relieve has built up from the business of war. Clubs so near a military base seem to attract significantly more men. That’s why ladies’ nights – where the women don’t pay a cover charge and their drinks come half price – are frequent. Even the local strip club has a ladies night.
In these clubs, the same short buzz hair cut is popular. Admittance is at 18, not 21, even though 18 officially puts alcohol off limits. If you ask, the soldiers confess they’ve come to socialize or for the pool or even to drink more than is good for them -- but that mostly they’re here to find girls.
Chris Sharp, 31, hits the Rockin’ R every Friday night with one goal: “Find a girl and go home with her.” Sharp is confident his status -- “I’m a single soldier, I drive a nice car and I make good money” -- will, as usual, be enough for success. Soldier Josh Emmons, 21, is equally blunt about motivation, although he admits he’s worried the high ratio of men to women may reduce his chances.
The girls in the mini-skirts and the tight jeans don’t want to give their names. They say they’re quite aware of what the guys are here for. The girls say they’re here just to see their friends.
Not all the soldiers come looking for one-night stands, of course. And, it seems, soldiers, maybe more than most men, have had their hearts broken.
Before he left for Iraq, says the Army’s Dustin Russell, 21, he met a woman and gave her his credit card. When he returned from halfway around the world, she had moved to San Diego with her new husband. Soldier Matt Knee, 21, says he can’t even talk with girls at the clubs because he wears his broken heart on his sleeve. Two months into an Iraq stint, he discovered his high school sweetheart was pregnant with his best friend’s baby.
“It’s hard to stay faithful in a military marriage,” says one divorced woman who looks a bit older than most of the crowd. Long separations make marriage hard.
Maybe the customers are a bit different; maybe the atmosphere’s a bit more bittersweet in bars that attract the military here. St. Robert, which nudges the fort on the north, offers more nightlife than Waynesville on its northwest side. But wherever the bars, says Melinda Snell, an administrative assistant in the St. Robert Police Department, the soldiers cause no more problems than the locals.