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U.S. War Veterans Express Schism on Iraq

Some say retreat would leave a perilous void; others favor exit. But ambivalence reigns.

November 09, 2003|Ben Dobbin | Associated Press Writer

Perhaps better than most, veterans of America's involvement in places from Sicily to Korea to Saigon to Kuwait City understand what their brethren are experiencing in the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

As they recall their experiences, many say they believe the United States should stay the course despite painful losses. Withdrawing from Iraq now, they say, would leave a perilous void. Others favor a quick exit. And some express deeply ambivalent emotions.

As Veterans Day approaches, former warriors reflect on battles -- past and present.

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Thomas Greene still suffers "real bad flashbacks, sweats, nightmares" from his 2 1/2 years as an Army Ranger "door gunner" on an attack helicopter in Vietnam from 1969 to 1973.

"Everybody says forget, forget, forget. You can't. I was in hell every day," said Greene, 52, who was wounded three times by bullets or shrapnel.

After 23 years working for the U.S. Postal Service, Greene has been on disability since 1994. He lives near Rochester, N.Y.

Earlier wars, he said, seemed to have a clearer mission -- defeat the Nazis, hold back the Communists. Iraq, in his view, looks too much like Vietnam.

"We have become the world's police force," he said. "If we kick back and say, 'OK, we'll lose one soldier every day, 365 a year,' as far as a war goes, that's not bad. But as a police action, that's not good."

But he says withdrawing wouldn't be right. "My head says we have to stick it out. My heart says I hope we stay with the troops and support them when they come home. "I'm really torn....I cry every time I hear somebody died because I think of somebody I knew."

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Fred Brady, a retired Navy commander who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, says the United States would only encourage terrorism if it pulled out of Iraq in the face of mounting casualties.

"We did the same thing in Beirut. We made a commitment and the first time we took casualties we ran," Brady said. "We did it in Somalia. The first time we started taking casualties we ran. We're getting a reputation, and the terrorists know that we run when we take casualties."

Brady, 76, now volunteers at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla.

He sees two major differences between his wars and Iraq: U.S. troops in Iraq are all volunteers, and he believes senior officers today are more attuned to avoiding casualties.

Striving to avoid casualties, he said, "is sometimes good, sometimes bad. You can let that govern your operation to the extent where you're not doing your best."

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A Gulf War veteran, Rob Hedequist said his first impulse when the war in Iraq started was to rejoin the Marine Corps. Then reality set in.

"I'm older, 20 pounds heavier, not quite in the shape I used to be in," the father of four, a Seattle-based drug company manager, said with a laugh.

Hedequist, 42, who commanded an antiterrorism unit that helped protect ships and the Saudi port of Al Jubail, believes anyone who expects the conflict in Iraq to end as quickly and bloodlessly as the Gulf War has the wrong idea. "This is a difficult type of mission and a difficult type of war," he said.

Despite the mounting U.S. casualties, Hedequist said the military should stay in Iraq until the new Iraqi government is established. "Unless we're there, instability will continue to reign."

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Grethe Cammermeyer says she was against U.S. involvement in Iraq from the beginning, especially with little support at home and from the international community.

The 61-year-old retired Army colonel, a lesbian who successfully fought to stay in the military, believes there are too many similarities between Iraq and Vietnam where, she said, "we were used for political gain, or political loss as it turned out."

Just as with Vietnam, where Cammermeyer spent 14 months, Americans are divided on Iraq.

"What we're feeling is that same schism of wanting to support our troops and wondering why the hell are we there," she said from her home near Langley, Wash.

Antiwar demonstrations were beginning during her time in Vietnam, she said -- and they hurt. "It was absolutely psychologically devastating to feel, as a nurse, that you were taking care of the best and the most dedicated ... then to have our citizens negating that sacrifice."

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Andy Anzanos remembers flying on 26 B-17 bombing missions in World War II, a time when he says people willingly went to battle.

"Now, people are worried about one or two dying a day, while we had thousands" dying, he said.

"And yet, I feel we've got a bigger threat today [at home], the populace has a bigger threat today than we had back during World War II."

Anzanos, 79, left the Army Air Corps after the war as a technical sergeant, then had a long career with McDonnell Aircraft before retiring to Tucson in 1980.

Anzanos believes the antiwar sentiment concerning Iraq could evolve into something resembling that of the latter stages of the Vietnam War, fracturing the nation. But he says the nation will "stick it out" in Iraq. "We have to."

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