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Iraq Journals

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Tuesday, April 8

Veterans split over Iraq war, but united on respect for troops

By Erin Kelly | GNS

WASHINGTON - When Persian Gulf War veterans Michael Woods and Charles Sheehan-Miles see the faces of young American soldiers flash across the TV screen from Iraq, they see themselves.

They remember the stinging sandstorms, the blinding smoke, the sound of artillery fire. And they hope the war will end soon and the soldiers will come back to their families.

But they part company when it comes to whether the war is right or wrong.

"My reaction is: Let's get Saddam,'' said Woods, a 34-year-old Kissimmee, Fla., resident who is disabled by seizures and blackouts attributed to Gulf War Syndrome. "It's his fault we're sick. It's my opinion he would give chemical weapons to anyone who would use them on Americans, whether they are U.S. troops liberating his people or tourists visiting Disney World. He needs to be brought to justice.''

Sheehan-Miles sees the war differently.

"I've got friends who are over there right now who are in combat and I'm angry that the government put them in that situation,'' said Sheehan-Miles, a Reston, Va., resident who served in an Army tank unit during the gulf war and "killed a lot of people.'' "I believe it's dangerous to world peace and to America's security. I think the average Iraqi civilian sees us as occupiers rather than liberators.''

Their emotional split is repeated throughout the veterans' community. Many see the war in Iraq as a righteous fight to protect the world from a murderous dictator. Others see a tragic mistake that is costing young American men and women their lives for no good reason.

Some veterans suggest the division can be explained, in part, as a generation gap between those who fought in "popular'' wars such as World War II and those who fought in unpopular wars such as Vietnam.

The American Legion, which strongly supports President Bush's decision to go to war, still has World War II vets as its single biggest membership group. An anti-war group called Veterans for Common Sense says Vietnam vets accounted for half of the 5,000 veterans who recently signed the group's anti-war petition.

However, many vets say the differences are more personal than generational. And it's easy to find veterans of every war on opposite sides on Iraq.

Vietnam veteran Ron Conley, the national commander of the 2.8 million-member American Legion, said he believes the majority of veterans support the war against Iraq. After World War II vets, the second largest group of legionnaires are Vietnam vets like him, Conley said.

"We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the president of the United States,'' said Conley, who lives in Pittsburgh. "I don't want to stifle anybody's freedom of speech, but it's hard to understand why anybody would want to shore up Saddam Hussein. I think the veterans who are protesting this war are misguided.''

But other Vietnam vets say their experiences in that disastrous war made them more inclined to oppose the war with Iraq.

"I think after going through Vietnam, after realizing we were lied to by the media and the politicians, we look at all overseas adventures with a skeptical eye,'' said Barry Romo, a Chicago resident and a national coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. ``I see us going over there (to Iraq) attacking a third-rate power. I don't see anything of pride to be gained from it.''

Despite their differences, the veterans are united in their respect for the troops fighting the war. And both pro-war and anti-war groups are lobbying Congress and the White House to ensure that the men and women who come home from Iraq will get the medical benefits they have earned.

"We can definitely find common ground on the issue of making sure the government is taking care of veterans,'' said Woody Powell, a Korean War veteran and executive director of Veterans for Peace in St. Louis, Mo.

But at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post, Powell and other vets don't try to find common ground on the war itself.

"We don't talk politics. We're afraid to. I think it would interfere with the bonding that comes from having fought in the same war. So we just walk around those issues,'' he said. "But it's getting harder and harder to walk around it.''