Thursday, August 26, 2004

Wounds Opened Anew as Vietnam Resurfaces

NY Times
August 26, 2004
Wounds Opened Anew as Vietnam Resurfaces

Many of them are bent and broken, grayer and wider. Some carry shrapnel from a step too far, an ambush replayed over and over. All carry memories. And now as the debate over service 35 years ago in a war that will not entirely fade roils the presidential campaign, Vietnam veterans wonder if they are doomed to take the arguments that divided a nation to their graves.

"It really upsets me, pitting one Vietnam veteran against another," said Frank Stephens, 55, of Granite Falls, Wash., who received a Purple Heart after being wounded during his Army tour in Vietnam in 1969. "I feel like the politicians are using us. They just won't let that war go."

For the more than 2.5 million veterans who served in Vietnam from 1965 through 1973, the clash over Senator John Kerry's service on a Navy Swift boat moves them into a new phase of their evolving place in the national consciousness. After being called both baby killers and heroes, they now feel like something else: political footballs.

"I thought Vietnam was over a few years ago, but apparently not," said Bruce Iverson, 58, an Air Force veteran of the war, who drives a bus in Portland, Me.

They profess to be brothers, and in veterans halls around the country the men who fought in Vietnam emphasized their common bonds and a view that most of the country may never understand them. But the advertisements by one group of veterans attacking the war record of Mr. Kerry, advertisements that are closely tied to supporters of President Bush, have reopened wounds about class and service and frayed some of the unifying threads.

"We didn't see any rich boys out there, not any at all, and if they were they had cushy jobs," said Ambrose D'Arpino, a 57-year-old former Air Force medic from Arizona who said Mr. Bush should not be criticizing Mr. Kerry because the president did not serve in Vietnam. Mr. D'Arpino was touring the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which has carved on it the names of the 58,245 Americans who died in the war.

The Swift boat advertisements have infuriated Mr. D'Arpino, who said the candidates should focus on the issues of the day. It is a sentiment expressed by many veterans.

"Kerry earned medals,'' said Curtis Hamilton, an Army veteran from Maine who served in the mid-1980's. "Bush didn't. Who cares?"

In Oregon, a group of veterans held a rally on Monday to protest statements made against Mr. Kerry in an affidavit by one veteran, Alfred French, who is a deputy district attorney in Clackamas County, near Portland. Veterans said Mr. French's criticism of Mr. Kerry's war record, which he later told The Oregonian newspaper was based on the accounts of others, had inflamed old divisions.

"This Swift boat stuff is making life very, very difficult for Vietnam veterans, no matter who they support for president," said Colleen Helmstetter, who served with the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam in 1970 and '71. Ms. Helmstetter, of Gresham, Ore., turned out with other veterans for the Monday protest. "Will this wound ever go away?"

The hurt and divisions have always been there, veterans said, but they come and go, often set off by a cultural event or a campaign.

"This new stuff from the Swift boat opponents of Kerry does not surprise me," said Charlie Brown, of Seattle, who was an Air Force medic in Vietnam and 1967 and 1968. "There was a right and a left among guys in Vietnam back in the 60's. And there's a right and a left now."

It is unclear how the advertisements will affect the vote of the nation's 26.5 million veterans. Mr. Kerry had hoped his war record would help him to make significant inroads with a group that tends to vote Republican. A poll by CBS News last week showed a drop in veteran support for Mr. Kerry, but the margin of sampling error in that poll, plus or minus eight percentage points, of the small number of veterans sampled, 144, was too large to give a true picture of veterans' sentiment, other pollsters said. But interviews with veterans across the country found a hard-edged cynicism about both Mr. Kerry's using his Vietnam service to advance his candidacy and Mr. Bush for his ties to a group that has renewed some of the divisions of a long-gone war.

None of the veterans interviewed said the challenge by the anti-Kerry group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, had changed their minds on the election. But a handful said the attacks were making them rethink support for Mr. Bush.

"I'm a Republican - I voted for Bush last time - but I may go to Kerry this year," said Ron Ostrander, who served in the Army from 1966 to 1969 and lives in Vancouver, Wash. "To me, it's irrelevant whether Kerry's boat went into international waters or not, or how he got his medals. The fact that he served and did his duty - don't try to take that away from him."

Ralph Bozella, a 55-year-old veteran who lives in Longmont, Colo., said the more he followed the Swift boat controversy, the more he drifted into Mr. Kerry's camp.

"I feel like what they did to attack his record is an affront to all veterans," said Mr. Bozella, who was an infantry soldier in Vietnam in 1971. "When you honor one veteran, you honor all veterans, so when you disgrace one veteran, you disgrace all veterans, especially a Vietnam veteran."

A Navy veteran and Republican who voted for Mr. Bush in 2000, Mike Weiss of Portland, Me., said Mr. Bush should denounce the attack advertisements.

"It's very sad for me," said Mr. Weiss. "I'm not surprised, but I think Bush is playing a dangerous game, and I think he's turning a lot of people off, myself included."

Whether the candidates saw combat or not, few veterans interviewed said it made much difference.

"We all tried to get into the Air National Guard," said Gary Franklin, a supporter of Mr. Bush who did two tours of duty as an Air Force sergeant from 1969 through 1972. "Bush was smart. Who wants to get shot?"

Mr. Franklin was wounded in the leg while serving on a medical evacuation helicopter, which he said was "like a big metro bus with a blade atop it." He said it did not bother him that Mr. Kerry later protested the war, and he said American soldiers had committed atrocities.

"He earned that right to protest," said Mr. Franklin, who sat chain-smoking outside the veterans hospital in Seattle. "He didn't have to go over there, but he did. And not many of us guys came back and said, 'Hey, let's go to war.' "

But he does not like Mr. Kerry's using his Vietnam service as a central theme of his campaign.

"My biggest beef with Kerry is that he's dragging us Vietnam vets through the political campaign to show that he has a good military background compared to Bush," Mr. Franklin said.

Another Bush supporter, Bill Bentley, who spent 23 months in Vietnam, on two tours, said he could not forgive Mr. Kerry for speaking against the war. A resident of Gulf Breeze, Fla., Mr. Bentley said the recent dust-up over Mr. Kerry's service reignited the anger he felt toward veterans who opposed the war.

"He came back and spoke before the Senate and said we were all baby killers," said Mr. Bentley. "It's only about 10 years ago that we Vietnam vets were able to come out of the closet and realized we didn't need to be ashamed for serving our country."

While closing ranks against outside criticism, some veterans said Mr. Kerry's service record became fair game for attacks by other veterans because he played it up in the campaign. "If Kerry brings it out, then he's got to face the consequences," said Charles E. Nichols, 57, who lives in Matteson, Ill.

A retired Marine Corps veteran with two Purple Hearts, one for getting shot in the knee, the other for taking a bullet in the shoulder, Mr. Nichols would like to see the campaign focus on other issues.

"I truly think it's a big waste of the public's time," said Mr. Nichols. "They're trying to discredit him, taking our minds off the issues."

Mr. Stephens, the former Army specialist from Granite Falls who was wounded with shrapnel from a land mine, described himself as independent. He had never harbored any bitterness toward his fellow baby boomers who did not serve, but the Swift boat controversy has made him rethink his feelings toward people like Vice President Dick Cheney, who avoided the draft by college deferments, he said.

"The vice president said he had 'other priorities,' " said Mr. Stephens, gesturing toward his war wound. "Didn't we all."