Wednesday, November 14, 2001/lk
There are perhaps no greater supporters of peace than combat veterans -- but many of these individuals have also learned the hard way that there is a time for war.
And five Hood River Vietnam-era veterans believe that time was thrust upon America when terrorists launched the Sept. 11 surprise attacks on the East Coast that killed about 5,000 innocent people.
They also believe that one of the basic freedoms of living in America is the right to speak out against war -- sentiments that should be accompanied by strong support for the personnel in the United States armed forces.
"People need to remember that today there is an all-volunteer force of men and women who have stepped forward to support the constitution and this country's way of life," said Lynn Guenther, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.
Soldiers do not always have to believe in the actions of their government to take their duties very seriously, said former Navy Aviation Electronic Technician Paul Thompson, who was strongly anti-war when he began his military service in 1968 aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Constellation.
"I had always been a patriotic type person and saw lots of honor in defending my country, but I also saw what a ridiculous situation Vietnam was and that really made it tough -- but I just had to do what I had committed to do," he said.
However, Thompson said the current war on Afghanistan is worlds apart from Vietnam because its objectives are clearly defined and he believes government and military leaders are sincerely trying to do what it takes to protect American citizens.
And former Navy Petty Officer Paul Cummings hopes those goals and objectives do not become blurred in what could be a long-term military campaign.
"Politicians shouldn't run this war because that ties the hands of the military to do the jobs they are trained for, and battles shouldn't be fought on the five o'clock news because civilians aren't there and can't make the call on what is appropriate action," said Cummings, whose camouflaged personnel barracks ship, the U.S.S. Benewah, was frequently fired upon in 1968 while transporting soldiers and supplies up the Mekong River.
Thompson and Cummings said because they were stationed at sea, they were not subjected to the extreme physical hardships endured by their three compatriots, although the survival stress of war was always with them.
Guenther, a prisoner of war for 14 months in the infamous camp known as "Hanoi Hilton," joins decorated Army veterans Capt. Will Carey and Staff Sergeant William Parrish in urging civilians to understand that combat soldiers often undergo severe trauma and stress in their struggle to survive.
Carey said that battle horrors are never forgotten although they cease to be as vivid over time -- wisdom that he shares from first hand experience.
On Carey's first day in the field of war torn southern Vietnam, his base commander was blown up by a bomb hidden in the roadway, just minutes after they had been introduced.
"It was a real shock to see someone you'd just met that quickly dead," said Carey.
But he would be required to quickly make the uneasy adjustment to the sight of carnage since A Company of the Second Infantry Division came under daily fire -- but nothing as horrifying as the first wave of the Tet Offensive that began on Jan. 31, 1968.
Only one month earlier Carey had taken responsibility for more than 200 men as the base commander of the mechanized unit. Because of faulty military intelligence, the U.S. forces were surprised when 15,000 North Vietnamese soldiers launched the biggest, bloodiest battle of the 16-year war.
But Carey knew shortly that something was very wrong when the night sky was lit up by the green tracer bullets of the enemy and not the red fire of American forces. His charge was to guard Highway 13 from nearby Cambodia and when a 10-man patrol was ambushed a short distance up that passage and one soldier shot in the stomach began screaming for help, Carey and a small contingent of his men climbed into armored vehicles and headed out into the darkness. Their next shock came when they requested that flares illuminate the area, and discovered numerous enemy forces closing in on them from only feet away. Almost immediately, a solid green mass of tracers headed his way and the front end of his vehicle was hit with an anti-tank rocket. Carey immediately yelled at his driver to back up -- but that soldier had been decapitated by one of the bullet rounds that next struck Carey six times as he did a back flip to roll off his vulnerable perch.
"The only thing I could think of was that I had to get mortar fire to protect us," said Carey, who then crawled back up to the radio under the fire cover of nearby medics.
While waiting for help to arrive, Carey sent two of his small group on up the road where they successfully returned with six surviving patrol members. Because of the high casualty rate that night, Carey was unable to receive proper medical care for his leg, which he almost lost when gangrene set in.
After a hospital stay of about six months, Carey was placed on medical leave and sent to the University of Oregon as an ROTC instructor -- and that's where he received a secondary shock.
"I hadn't been aware of the protests taking place in the states and here I was in a uniform walking across a college campus and getting called every name in the book," said Carey, who would not be sent back to active duty because of nerve damage to his leg.
Parrish said the living conditions of troops can themselves impose horrors. While stationed at Army headquarters in Saigon in 1970, Parrish was always on the lookout for stray cobras -- especially after a fellow soldier lying about two feet away from him was bitten in the throat one night. Nevertheless, he said the resolve of the military forces is to overcome these difficulties and do the jobs they are trained for. Parrish was awarded gallantry and meritorious service commendations when the Viet Cong invaded the administration building where he guarded the top secret repository. As the enemy neared the third floor chamber, Parrish rigged up eight sticks of dynamite and hovered over the plunger, determined not to allow the confidential information to be placed in the hands of hostile forces. Although he did not have to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life, Parrish said he was prepared to do whatever it took to defend his country.
All five of these veterans said it takes time for front-line troops to adjust to being home and some memories never fade: Carey was edgy for years while walking through open meadows, loud noises caused Cummings to dive for cover, Parrish still remembers the desperate search for a post-military job, to this day Guenther relishes the simple pleasures of clean sheets and coffee, and Thompson the liberties enjoyed in civilian life.