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A Vietnam Vet's Message for Iraq War Returnees: Organize

'I don't want to see these guys treated like we were,' says Russell Terry, who started a group for them.

November 11, 2003|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Russell Terry hopes to spend today at Riverside National Cemetery promoting an idea he believes is ripe: an organization aimed at the needs of veterans returning from Iraq.

A Vietnam War veteran, Terry, 54, knows firsthand how difficult returning from combat can be. So he's doing something he hopes will make that transition easier for the nation's next group of veterans.

"When I came back, I was spat on at the airport," said Terry, of Yucaipa. "I don't want to see these guys treated like we were. I don't want them to have to fight to get benefits or recognition and honor from the public. I don't want one of them to come home and be ashamed to wear his uniform."

Terry believes his fledging group, the Iraq War Veterans Organization, is the first of its kind. And today, on the first Veterans Day since the Iraq war began, he plans to be at the cemetery's memorial service with organizational leaflets in hand.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Veterans ceremony -- A caption in Tuesday's Section A with a Veterans Day photograph omitted the service status of Gilbert Rodriguez. He is a veteran and was a corporal in the Marines.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. National Cemetery -- In some editions of the Nov. 11 California section, the caption on a photograph accompanying a story on Veterans Day observances said the Los Angeles National Cemetery is in Brentwood. The cemetery is in Westwood.

"I want [the] public ... to see what these guys have been through and to understand what's going on with them," Terry said. "The only way to drive that is to get political clout, and the only way to get political clout is to have an organization."

In fact, the new veterans group -- which consists primarily of a Web site, www.iraqwarveterans.org -- comes at a time of a major transition among America's organized veterans. With membership dwindling in such traditional groups as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, many see a vacuum waiting to be filled.

"At the rate we're losing people," said Lou Jordan, commander of the VFW post in Anaheim, "the organization isn't going to be around that much longer."

The largest VFW group in Orange County, his post has more than 470 members. But about 90% of them, Jordan said, are World War II or Korean War veterans whose average age is 65.

The situation is similar at American Legion Post 131 in Santa Ana where about 65% of the 610 members are World War II and Korean War vets in their 70s and 80s.

"We're losing members right and left because of age," said post commander Frank Cipriani. "Until we start getting vets back from Iraq, we're losing more than we're gaining."

To help lure them, the post has sent care packages to military personnel in Iraq complete with membership applications.

Meanwhile, other services -- often based on the Internet -- have stepped in to take on the role military organizations once did exclusively. In Chatsworth, for instance, Karin Markley launched a Web site in June aimed at helping returning vets find suitable housing and employment.

"There was a need," she says of the site, called www.militaryexits.com. "If these people are tank drivers or sharpshooters, they're not going to be doing that back here."

Instead, Markley says, she finds them civilian positions in fields such as transportation (a favorite among former tank drivers), law enforcement, construction and health care. "I get hundreds of resumes a month," about 60% of which quickly land jobs, she says.

That happened to Michael Lakewood, 25, a Marine sharpshooter who returned home to Canoga Park last month and is training to become a refrigeration technician.

"It's a good thing," he said, "because I don't feel like killing anyone down here. It was my first war, and I hope it's my last."

Steven Banducci, 31, an Army infantryman who spent most of his military career at Fort Benning, Ga., training others en route to Iraq, also quickly found civilian employment.

"There's overall community support," he said. "People are looking for veterans and want to hire them."

But neither has any immediate plans of joining a veterans group.

"This war looks like a mirror of Vietnam," Terry said. "The longer it lasts, the worse public opinion will be. If I were an Iraq veteran, I'd want to belong to an organization that speaks my mind. That's my purpose: to give them a specific voice."

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