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FORGOTTEN VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS

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Regardless of the place, soldiers' experiences remain the same: They enter a bewildering world of war and when they return to civilian life, are expected to be the same as when they left. Yet, rarely is that the case. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Will America snub the vets of the Iraqi war as it did their Vietnam and Korean counterparts?

You might not have noticed, but a select group of citizens visited San Antonio last month. Some came in wheelchairs. Some leaned on canes. Some had lost parts of themselves. And some were still straight and sure. Shiny medals adorned their caps and chests. And inside, a few carried twisted fragments of metal ripped into their bodies long ago, in faraway and mostly forgotten places like Inchon Harbor, Hue City, and the Ardennes Forest.

Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars arrived from across the country to visit friends, remember the dead, discuss issues, and recall the days when instead of merely living history, they made it.

But this year, the reminiscing was overshadowed by the knowledge that each night outside the nation's Capitol, at Andrews Air Force Base, members of a new generation of American veterans were coming home. Some carrying twisted fragments of metal from faraway and mostly unknown places like Tikrit, Paktika, and Nasiriya.

Over time, the places change, but the soldiers' experience remains the same: They enter the bewildering world of war, where survival is never a given. If they make it out alive, suddenly they are thrust back into their previous life — where they are expected to be the same people as when they left. There is a notion that because they're back, everything is fine.

But everything is not always fine.

When Robert Boddie returned from Vietnam, he was not fine. And he worries for the American soldiers in Iraq — not only while they're fighting, but also when they return home. Many of them will not be fine, either.

Boddie knows what it feels like to lose your way. Knows what the American soldiers are enduring, what they could come home to — especially if the U.S. doesn't "win" the war. Like Korea and Vietnam veterans, they could be forgotten, snubbed, ignored.

"I really don't like what's going on over there in Iraq." said Boddie. He is a slender man, standing at over 6 feet tall, and has a gentle, soft-spoken demeanor that makes him seem even bigger. "I've actually been losing a lot of sleep at night with stuff running through my mind about this war."

Boddie came to the VFW convention from La Grange, Georgia. An African-American from the South, he entered the Army in 1965 — and like many American soldiers in Iraq, was quite young.

"I don't like it … for the simple reason that I had the experience of watching a lot of younger soldiers in Vietnam, out on the front line. My thing about it is, I feel as if they haven't lived. Putting those guys out there at that age … I have a problem with that, because in my time in combat I saw a lot of younger soldiers, and it's sad to have to see them go out there in that front line of battle. That kind of hurts me to know what they are going to go through.

"And I think a lot of this stuff with Iraq could have been avoided," he added. "They could have took a different approach to this thing. And now, after the war is supposed to be over, we're losing men every other day. I'm really sad about it."

Boddie paused to gather himself and tears welled in his eyes. Then he whispered as if in a confessional: "I'm really kind of angry about it."

His voice became stronger and gained authority: "Yeah. Yeah, I am. I'm really angry about it."

NOT ALL VETS TREATED EQUALLY

Each American war had a distinct character that is reflected in the lives of those who served. WWII vets fought the "good war." The nation was united, and there was a clear sense of purpose. Civilians supported the troops and sacrificed their own comforts for the war effort.

WWII vets returned with the same problems that are shared by all war veterans, but they also came home to an appreciative nation, and a government that went out of its way to establish programs to help veterans rejoin American society. The Veterans Administration took on the mammoth task of managing a set of veteran entitlement programs including home buyers loan guarantees, health care, and college tuition. It was called the "GI Bill," a masterpiece among the social programs created by the Democratic party. The program not only took responsibility for the care of those who had served the nation in WWII, it also gave those veterans an avenue for improving their economic standing, and, by extension, it healed and advanced the nation.

Then came Korea.

Arguably, one of America's most shameful moments happened in the Korean War: Although Korea produced countless stories of unimaginable hardship, misery, and slaughter, nothing emerged that was more grotesque or dishonorable than the way America turned its back on the Korean vets.

 
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Among the health fairs, legislative sessions, and historical exhibits, vendors also hawked their wares - badges, patches, and pins - to VFW members. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Perhaps the WWII generation was too busy enjoying their GI Bill benefits, or maybe the nation felt it had already "done its time" with the Second World War. Whatever excuse America might make, Korean vets were in a terribly real war, and they returned to a public that hardly bothered to include them in the history books. Without so much as a handshake, they slipped back home, and in a secret nod to the truth they were dubbed the "invisible vets."

The Korean War should have taught Americans about the cost of shunning the people sent to fight our wars. But the nation was too preoccupied to learn from it; America was headed to a nightmare called Vietnam.

It may not be possible to adequately express America's experience in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War remains in some ways, unfinished. Those who lived through it are still trying to understand why everything seemed to go wrong.

Like Vietnam, things seem to be going wrong in Iraq: Soldiers are dying in a guerrilla war and the Bush administration's lies and half-truths echo those told by another Texas president — Lyndon B. Johnson — nearly 40 years ago.

"You know, I'm all for defending and guarding our country" said Boddie, who had a 21-year career in the Army. "But I think sometimes you have to ask yourself, 'Is this necessary, what we're doing? Is this really what we should be doing?' Several of the things this war was supposed to be about have turned out to be unfounded, and that really upsets me. So much stuff over there is being swept under the rug. Stuff you don't hear about. I know how that works from Vietnam. I got the chance to see it, the chance to experience it, and the chance to do it."

No group of veterans experienced anything like Vietnam: It was a sick two-for-one deal. Soldiers served the nation and fought a jungle war, and the survivors returned to a country that was ashamed or resentful or simply hateful towards them. And what the soldiers endured and witnessed in Vietnam — much like the trauma inflicted on today's soldiers in Iraq — has lodged as deeply in their memory as any piece of shrapnel.

"For thirty-some years of my life, after I was in combat, I suffered with what turned out to be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," Boddie explained. "After Vietnam I chose to make the military my career. But I didn't get any help for the problems I was having because I was afraid that if I showed any signs of weakness they would think that I didn't fit into the military and exorcise me out of the sevice, and end my career. So I felt I had to keep all that stuff inside, what I had seen day to day in Vietnam. I went through a lot of things, without understanding why. But I just hope that these soldiers in Iraq get better help now, when they come out of this situation — better help that I got when I was in.

"I've actually been losing a lot of sleep worrying about it. It really bothers me because I know what they are going to go through when they get out. If they go through the same thing I went through they are going to have some real problems in our society, and in our military, cause everybody's just not strong enough to carry on with all that baggage. Some will have things eating at them, inside. And they'll be afraid to talk cause nobody would understand.

"That was my biggest problem. If I started to try expressing my feelings, and what was bottled up inside of me, people would look at me like 'Where are you coming from?' I just hope that these guys get treated a lot better than the Vietnam veterans did. A lot of times after Vietnam guys would try to get help and get denied and denied, and denied, and eventually a lot of guys just gave up, and balled up and crawled in that corner, isolated. That's another thing that runs through my mind; is this going to happen over and over? Pretty soon we may have another world of veterans out here just going to the dogs."

Perhaps it is a sign of courage, that some Americans haven't completely let go of Vietnam. It serves as a reference point, an example, for all that can go awry in war. But the nation's memory may no longer be as keen as Robert Boddie's.

"Right now when I find a veteran that's gone to combat I try to tell them some of the things that are available for them — you know, places to call, and people to talk to," Boddie said. "It's a nervewracking thing for me to know what these guys in Iraq are going to have to go through." •

Dennis Scoville served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972-75.


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