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From Heckles to Halos

In dramatic contrast to the Vietnam War era, U.S. service personnel now are being treated to strangers' spontaneous bursts of gratitude.

December 24, 2005|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

There's a diner called Peggy Sue's about eight miles outside of Barstow, and as hard as Lt. Col. Kenneth Parks tries, he can never seem to pay his bill.

He orders a burger and a chocolate shake. But before he's finished, the waitress informs him the tab has been taken care of by yet another stranger who prefers to remain anonymous but who wants to do something for a soldier in uniform.

Many Americans have conflicted feelings about the Iraq war, but not about the warriors. The gestures of gratitude and generosity that occur with regularity at Peggy Sue's -- across Interstate 15 from Ft. Irwin, a military desert training site -- have become commonplace across the United States.

A spontaneous standing ovation for a group of soldiers at Los Angeles International Airport. Three $20 bills passed to a serviceman and his family in a grocery store in Georgia. A first-class seat given up to a servicewoman on a plane out of Chicago.

These bursts of goodwill have little to do with the holiday season or with political sentiments about the war. In contrast to the hostile stares that greeted many Vietnam veterans 40 years ago, today's soldiers are being treated as heroes throughout the year, in red states and blue, by peace activists and gung-ho supporters of the Iraq mission. The gestures are often spontaneous, affiliated with no association or cause, and credit is seldom claimed.

"It makes you feel great. It may just be a burger and a shake, but it's the thought behind it," said Parks, 41, who has served two tours in Iraq. Stationed at Ft. Jackson, S.C., he goes to Barstow regularly for training.

"My father went over to Vietnam three times, and he felt like he was not respected," Parks said. "Sometimes he felt like he was not even an American. But I see a big difference. I feel we're appreciated. An airport is about the best place for a soldier to be."

That was Sgt. Baldwin Yen's experience when he landed at LAX on Thanksgiving Day 2004. The pilot asked whether the other passengers would mind letting the soldiers on board exit first so they could get home to their families all the sooner. Not a passenger complained. Still in their combat fatigues, the soldiers were assembled in a corner of the airport when a bystander began to applaud. Soon, people were standing up and clapping in spontaneous tribute as far as Yen could see.

"I was kind of embarrassed," said Yen, 27, of West Hollywood. As an Army reservist who wore his uniform only infrequently until he was called to Iraq, he was unaccustomed to such attention. "I'm a slight, Asian man -- 5-feet-9 and 140 pounds. People usually didn't think I looked like the military type. But then all these people were standing up. I was touched and surprised."

This is not a nation at war so much as it is an army at war. Service members and their families mostly bear the weight of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions alone -- family separations, career dislocation and danger. Many soldiers are serving third tours, and there is no clear end in sight.

For civilians, the chance to directly touch a military member or family can be irresistible, so much so that people break the comfortable anonymity of public places -- airports, hotels, supermarkets -- to walk up and pat a soldier on the back.

"For probably the first time in American history, civilians are asked to make no sacrifices in a time of war. We don't have a draft. There is no gas rationing the way there was in World War II. There is no increase in taxes; we get tax cuts instead," said Charles Moskos, a leading military sociologist at Northwestern University. "These acts are small ways of showing some recognition, because we're not doing it any other way."

U.S. Army Capt. Alina Martinez was in a grocery store outside Ft. Benning, Ga., with her soldier husband and their 3-year-old daughter last spring. Noticing the haircut, the couple in line ahead asked whether Martinez's husband was in the military. He answered that they both were. The couple thanked them repeatedly for their service and left the store.

Soon afterward, the cashier handed Martinez $60 that the strangers had left for them.

"My husband and I were shocked. He ran out to the parking lot to thank them, but they were gone. The cashier said the couple specifically told her to wait until they had left. They didn't want us to know," Martinez said.

"It wasn't the money; it was the fact that this couple only spoke to us for a couple of minutes, and they were so generous and sincere," she said. "It brought tears to my eyes right in the store."

National sentiment has come a long way since the days when Randall Rigby came home from Vietnam and was instructed by commanding officers to change out of his uniform before going out in public to avoid ridicule. Now a retired Army lieutenant general, Rigby recalled the memory one recent day when he watched a large man give up several inches of legroom in first class to a small female soldier seated in coach.

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