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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND THE PERSIAN GULF CRISIS : Conscience Galvanizes Activists on 2 Sides : One Family's Sign Blossoms Into Movement


GLENDORA — It all started a week ago, almost by accident.

Rebecca Venegas, whose son is serving with an Army tank unit in Saudi Arabia, nailed a sign on the front of her mother's home.

"Operation Desert Home," the sign said. "Pvt. Tony Barela. God Bless Our Military Men, Women And Their Families." It was a way, Venegas said, of expressing the family's unwavering support for Tony.

But the modest gesture caught a lot of people's attention. Neighbors expressed their approval and support. Motorists passing the home on Juanita Avenue stopped to share their worries about their own loved ones in the military.

Now, veterans groups have thrown their weight behind the effort, and a Tustin company has contributed campaign buttons.

The idea is simple, Venegas says. Though it may seem remote right now, those U.S. servicemen and women in the Persian Gulf will be coming home someday. They'll be tired and worn from war, and they'll need an old-fashioned welcome.

Operation Desert Home's 300 members just want to ensure that returning servicemen and women aren't treated the way Vietnam veterans were.

"We all saw how even Vietnam veterans returning home without wounds were in fact wounded by American society," Venegas said. "Well, we in the San Gabriel Valley will be damned if we will allow that to happen to our brave warriors returning from the Persian Gulf."

Her organization is setting up "welcome home" committees to greet war veterans, and it's planning a victory parade in the San Gabriel Valley. Members are handing out campaign buttons decorated with the name of the organization and the image of a yellow bow, and they're getting together to share worries about relatives overseas.

"It's very frightening," said Angie Venegas, Rebecca's mother, whose son was disabled in Vietnam. "I think it's harder with my grandson than with my son. My son had a better chance of coming home. Now they've got those missiles."

For now, the group is concentrating on the San Gabriel Valley, encouraging city councils to proclaim support for the military and organizing welcoming committees.

Still fresh in members' minds is the experience of returning Vietnam veterans, such as Rebecca Venegas' brother Rudy, a Marine in Vietnam. He was disabled, losing 80% of his hearing when an incoming artillery round blew him out of the back of a truck, said Rudy's friend and fellow Marine George Pimentel.

"He still really hasn't recovered," Rebecca Venegas said. "When he came back, he couldn't really get a job. Nobody wanted to hire disabled Vietnam veterans. Nobody ever wanted to talk about Vietnam. It still affects him today."

Rudy Venegas, who loads trucks, spoke of his postwar experiences. "My parents and relatives honored me," he said. "Other than them holding me together, nobody else really cared."

Desert Home, meanwhile, is burgeoning. "I don't even have time to answer all the calls," Rebecca Venegas said. "I have a funny feeling it might just go all through the United States." But it still has its personal moments. "A lady stopped by and she just hugged us and started crying," she said. "She has a brother over there."

Though some members of Operation Desert Home expressed anger at anti-war protesters, they said their organization is not a collective rejection of the anti-war movement.

"It has nothing to do with protesters," Rebecca Venegas said. "They (American servicemen and women) are coming home. We have to get ready for them.

"We went from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm. Now this completes the process."

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