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These Vietnam Vets Have No Desire to See This War on TV

March 26, 2003|Steve Lopez

Half the world is watching this war on television. But when I walk into a dorm on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Los Angeles, the TV is tuned to an old movie.

"Why aren't you watching the news?" I ask Monroe Benefield III.

"It brings back the haunts," he says.

Benefield didn't ship out during the Vietnam War. The war came to him. Benefield handled the bodies of fellow soldiers who returned in body bags. He says some of the vets watch the coverage from Iraq, and he tunes in occasionally. But he can only take so much.

"A lot of them are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder," explains Jean Sanders, a vet who hands out lighthearted movie videos to the men in her dorm, encouraging them to watch anything but the news.

"I've been staying away from it," admits Ernest Rogers, who was shot in the left leg in Vietnam while diving for a foxhole. "I can't stand to see it."

In therapy, he says, you're encouraged to describe the war memories that keep you up at night, and many men leave those sessions in tears. He doesn't need CNN to give him any more sleepless nights.

Edward Antuna, wounded six times on air-rescue missions in Vietnam, has a different take. The war in Iraq looks different enough from the war in Vietnam that he can watch it without reliving his own worst experiences.

Antuna says he wishes he could take the place of the soldiers he sees on TV, so he could spare them what he went through.

"I know what it's like to have been shot," says Antuna, whose left leg is held together with a brace that has an American flag painted on it. "I'd rather be over there myself than have someone new find out how it feels."

Whether they can bring themselves to watch this war or not, the vets are nearly unanimous on one thing: They would like to throttle the war protesters.

Some of these kids weren't even born during the Vietnam War, says one vet. What do they know about sacrifice?

"I would love to go down there and kick some ... " says Rogers.

Every time the news and police helicopters fly overhead on the way to protests at the nearby Federal Building, it makes the men crazy, says Ruben Treviso, a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War. Part of it is recalling the haunting sound of helicopters in wartime, and part of it is recalling being spat upon when they returned home.

But Treviso, of East L.A., defended the protesters when fellow vets were popping off about them at a therapy session.

"I got up and said, 'These are the rights we fought for. We fought for free speech, because these are the rights we hold true. And that means any one of us could go stand on the corner and say whatever we want.' "

The vets bring all kinds of problems to the VA hospital, and some of them wait in line to tell me their story. The details vary, but the theme is the same.

They never pulled themselves together after the war -- or maybe they did -- and then things fell apart again.

Some of them get out of this residential program after a few weeks; some find a way to never leave.

As grim as the aging compound is, its gray halls filled with ghosts, there's comfort here.

Antuna, who doesn't own a car or a credit card, and who can't hold a job because he keeps seeing the faces of the buddies he couldn't save, says he lives on $201 a month in veteran's benefits.

But he has something of great value in his room, and he goes upstairs now to retrieve it.

He's smiling pridefully when he returns with the silver "Air Rescue" emblem he wore on his maroon beret in Vietnam. He hands it to me and awaits my reaction, as if to see whether I think there's enough heft in it, enough hope, to rescue his own life.

As they swap stories from the front lines, Antuna and another vet take turns touching each other's scars and feeling the shrapnel under their skin.

Everyone here is still at war and still running from it.

Treviso, the tunnel rat who burrowed after the enemy, tells me with the urgency of a field commander that he's been advising the troops in his dorm to pay special attention to the youngest soldiers among them.

The Gulf War vets.

"All of us have lived with it long enough to know how to deal with it," Treviso says of war. "But they're seeing the same terrain, the same battles they saw in the first Gulf War. Those are the ones we need to keep an eye on now."

Treviso tells me about a snafu last week. Without thinking, someone popped in a video of the Mel Gibson movie "We Were Soldiers," a re-creation of one of the deadliest battles in the Vietnam War.

Forty or 50 soldiers were watching when the movie started, Treviso says.

Only one was there at the end.

*

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@

latimes.com.

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