As anniversaries coincide, area Vietnam veterans reflect on sobering Iraq war parallels

March 30, 2013

As area Vietnam War veterans observed the 40th anniversary of the combat troop withdrawal on Saturday, another anniversary was also on people’s minds: March 19 marked the 10th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. The parallels between the most unpopular war of the 20th century and the most unpopular war of the 21st century were easy to see.

“Yeah, I do think about that parallel, which is why last month we honored War on Terrorism veterans, whether they served in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said VFW adjutant Gary Gill, a Vietnam veteran from Otterville, after Saturday’s second annual “Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day” ceremony at VFW Post 2591 in Sedalia. “About 87 percent of the American public now highly regards Vietnam veterans, and I think they will say the same things about our War on Terrorism veterans.”

In that sense, the cautionary tale of Vietnam veterans — who were famously spat on, cussed at and reviled four decades ago but are now treated much better by the public — has been heeded.

From a standpoint of military tactics, though, the lessons of history have not been learned. Many of the Vietnam veterans at Saturday’s ceremony supported the United States’ mission in Vietnam, but not how it was carried out. Jim Gaertner, a Green Ridge Vietnam veteran who enlisted in the Army at age 17, gets frustrated when he observes the current Middle East conflict. He wears a “Let Us Win It” pin on his hat that could refer to the Vietnam War or the War on Terror.

“I really feel for our young soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “For example, in Afghanistan, al-Qaida uses Pakistan as a sanctuary. In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese used Cambodia and Laos as a sanctuary. And, with one exception, we weren’t allowed to go in there. And now our troops aren’t allowed to go into Pakistan. So I see a lot of parallels there, and that’s disturbing.”

“If you’re gonna fight a war, you should fight it to win, not to mark time,” said Vietnam veteran Larry Brooks, of Smithton, who was drafted into the Army at age 22. “I’m glad I went, but it’s a little aggravating when you have the possibility of wining the war and they won’t let you do that. That bothers me, because a lot of people died, and for what cause?”

Gaertner said many South Vietnamese refugees settled in Pettis County after the war, and he couldn’t help but engage them in conversation.

“If I would see a family of Vietnamese descent, I would go over and tell them that I fought for their country, I’m sorry they lost their country, and I apologize for my country turning its back on their country,” he said. “That left a lot of wounds.”

In both Vietnam and Iraq, the conflicts were often unclear, and the soldiers got mixed messages from the local populations.

“A lot of the (Vietnamese) people appreciated you being there,” Brooks said. “But then there was the other side, the Communists, who didn’t want you there. It’s the same thing now (in the Middle East) — you got people who want you there and people who don’t want you there. You don’t know who you’re really fighting.”

Thanks largely to the post-Vietnam mistakes, Americans now understand that mental and psychological treatment is crucial for soldiers returning home. In the 1970s, the prevailing attitude toward “combat fatigue” (now called “post-traumatic stress disorder”) was, as Gaertner put it: “Don’t be a wussy. Be a man and suck it up.” Although a combat veteran can never fully heal psychologically, diagnoses and treatments have vastly improved through the years.

“When I was younger, I kept thinking ‘I can’t wait till I get older, because when I get older these memories will fade and it will be better,’ ” said Gaertner, a retired Sedalia Police Department commander. “It doesn’t work that way. When you retire, it gets worse. When I retired in 2005, I started having a lot more problems with sleep issues and nightmares and hyper-alertness. My wife finally badgered me to go to the VA.”

Even with some modern warfare being fought with remote-controlled drones, the physical injuries haven’t declined much. In fact, Brooks counts himself lucky that he was involved in Vietnam rather than Iraq.

“Even though you’ve got the technology and drones, they still have to have people on the ground,” he said. “In Afghanistan now, there’s so many people with their arms and legs blown off. I go over to the VA and see all these younger ones in wheelchairs and their limbs are missing. It seems like there’s a lot more (lost limbs) now. We had it over there with booby traps, but it seems like it’s on a much larger scale now.”

While medical treatment is important, in some ways groups such as the VFW and events such as the “Recognition Day” are the best medicine.

“It’s a mixed bag; it’s bittersweet,” said Gaertner, who since the war has made many local friends (including Gill) who were likewise involved in the 35,000-troop incursion into Cambodia. “But it’s better to open up and get those things off your chest from time to time. The real value I see in this isn’t so much the recognition — none of us did what we did in Vietnam to be told how wonderful we were or to get medals — but the real value is the brotherhood with other people who experienced the same thing. More than any kind of therapy, the camaraderie with our band of brothers — there’s great strength in that.”

At Saturday’s event, area Vietnam veterans received certificates and pins, the 12 Pettis Countians killed in the war were remembered (and the sisters of two of those men were on hand), and Democrat veterans reporter Latisha Koetting spoke of the strength and knowledge Vietnam veterans can offer to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

“We all want (the War on Terror) to end,” said Gill, who enlisted in the Army with his parents’ reluctant permission at age 17, fresh out of high school. “But I tell ya, when it ends we want to give all the respect to our young soldiers when they come back. Maybe more so than any other group of veterans, we try to make sure that we extend that welcome — that they know we are there for them.”