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New veterans fear repeat of Vietnam

Groups working to educate public on Iraq returnees

WASHINGTON -- There were no victory parades for Vietnam veterans. They were seen -- and often derided -- as the product of a failed policy. They struggled for decades for acceptance and many are still fighting for veterans benefits.

Now, with polls showing a steady decline in public support and average Americans increasingly tuning out the war in Iraq, a new generation of veterans are warning that they, too, are at risk of the same kind of indifference that confronted Vietnam-era veterans, many of whom suffered from homelessness and mental disabilities, and sometimes slipped through the cracks of the Department of Veterans Affairs .

``I am concerned about the idea that guys who served in Iraq are used goods and are not much worth to society," said Marine Corps Captain David Danelo , author of ``Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq."

Danelo, who now lives in Kingston, Pa., said some of his colleagues have grown to feel unappreciated and have developed serious problems after returning home.

``There is a sense that it is very difficult to disassociate the troops from the policy," he said. ``It is easy for a guy who served and gets out to fade into the woodwork. That's dangerous for him and for the country."

Veterans of Iraq and Vietnam share some similarities. Public support for the Iraq invasion is steadily on the wane as the conflict enters its fourth year and US casualties climb. As with Vietnam, which lasted more than a decade, there probably will not be a clear victory over Iraqi insurgents; communal violence is expected to continue long after American troops leave. And both conflicts have been linked in the public consciousness with the abuse of prisoners and civilians, contributing to public anxiety.

As a result, some Iraq veterans worry they could be unfairly blamed for a quagmire.

``I think about how the Vietnam veterans were mistreated in basically every facet of life," said Richard Gibson , a 25-year-old former Marine corporal living in Kansas City , Mo . ``I don't want the same result that happened in Vietnam. Everybody thought the battles were lost in Vietnam, but no battle was ever lost. It was the politicians back home that lost it for them."

Gibson helps publish ``War of Words," a newsletter that is funded by the conservative political group America's Majority and is designed to highlight what troops are accomplishing in Iraq . He said he is speaking out about his experiences in part out of fear some of his fellow Iraq veterans ``are going to go into hiding."

``I don't want to be ridiculed," he said an interview. ``I speak out because the full story isn't being given. In the war on TV, American soldiers regularly mistreated civilians. But in the war we fought, American forces consistently restrained our overwhelming firepower superiority in order to save lives, even at our own risk."

The personal consequences for veterans of both wars are also similar. Both bear scars that take years to heal, including high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

But leaders of the veterans movement are concerned that the challenges facing this new generation are not well understood by Congress and Americans. They point out that less than 1 percent of the population will have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, making it a war far removed from the everyday lives of average Americans or members of Congress, very few of whom have served in uniform.

``This is the first war that has become an issue rather than a national experience," said Paul Reickoff , president of the nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in New York. ``How many soldiers were killed this week while we were obsessed with `American Idol'? But when the war winds down, the veterans' issues are going to be here for decades. We need to make sure both political parties make veterans a priority."

Reickoff, who was an Army lieutenant and platoon leader in Iraq, said there are already warning signs of problems to come: Even as tens of thousands of new veterans are being added to the rolls, the VA is fighting for budget increases. Complaints abound over delays for medical appointments for many of the 18,000 soldiers who have been wounded in the war. A recent documentary film depicted 10 homeless Iraq veterans living on the streets of New York City.

``The president is increasingly reluctant to talk about the human cost of the war," Reickoff said in an interview. ``That's what I really worry about. It's hard for him to say we need to do more for veterans suffering from PTSD and suicide rates when recruiting numbers are going down the tube. You rarely hear him discuss veterans' issues."

Entering the fray is a new crop of former soldiers from across the political spectrum that is seeking to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam experience. They have helped establish interest groups to shape their legacy and educate the public about veterans' needs. This new veterans community is beginning to elbow out more traditional veterans organizations.

``What happened in Vietnam is that we didn't [stick up for our interests] and we got our fannies handed to us," said retired Major General F.J. ``Bing" West, a Vietnam veteran and author who has visited Iraq four times.

One new veterans group is Veterans and Military Families for Progress, a nonpartisan grass-roots organization that is dedicated to ensuring the rights and needs of veterans and their families ``are understood by the American public, endorsed by our elected officials, and are protected by legislation, regulation, and public policy initiatives."

``We don't want to reinvent the wheel, but we think we can bring something new to this," said Matt Cary , a Vietnam veteran and the group's executive director. ``We are trying to make the main focus that if you turn on the war machine and ask our sons and daughters to risk their lives that you make a commitment to fulfill certain promises when they return: healthcare, jobs, housing."

The group, which plans to endorse political candidates, differs from more traditional veterans groups because it includes veterans of the active-duty forces and the reserves, as well as relatives of veterans. It has already set up seven local chapters around the country and plans to open up new offices in Massachusetts and New Hampshire this year.

Another new organization is HOPE for New Veterans, whose mission is to prevent homelessness among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. The group estimates that nearly 1 in 4 homeless people are military veterans.

``By learning from the past and helping new combat vets to secure housing and other help in adjusting to civilian life at the earliest sign of crisis, we can solve homelessness among new veterans before it occurs," the group says on its website.

The group helps to identify at-risk veterans; provides rental subsidies; offers mental health evaluations for those who slip through the cracks of the VA ; helps Iraq and Afghanistan veterans secure such benefits as food stamps and disability compensation; and helps them get steady jobs.

But perhaps the biggest challenge, say recent veterans, is educating the public and government leaders about the needs of veterans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Danelo, the Marine captain, said he was taken aback during his recent book tour at how quickly Americans are losing interest in the Iraq war .

Said Danelo: ``Talking about the war is not in vogue in a lot of places."

Bryan Bender can be reached at

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