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A tale of two wars.

Byline: The Register-Guard

It happens regularly at airports across the country (undoubtedly including Eugene's): A group of soldiers dressed in familiar desert camouflage fatigues emerges from the jetway and is greeted by a spontaneous round of applause in the waiting area, accompanied by shouts of "Thanks" and other heartfelt expressions of appreciation.

In the post-Sept. 11 United States, members of the nation's all-volunteer armed forces have joined New York City's firefighters and police officers as undisputed heroes in the minds of their fellow citizens. Even among the growing majority - now six in 10 Americans - who oppose the Iraq war, there is undiminished gratitude for the courage and sacrifice of U.S. troops.

What a dramatic turnaround from 40 years ago, when soldiers caught in another unpopular war sometimes became convenient targets for public anger over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. For some Lane County Vietnam veterans, those wounds still haven't healed.

Following publication of a letter to the editor in February that said there was no evidence supporting claims that returning Vietnam vets were spat upon by protesters, a number of Lane County veterans responded with personal stories of abusive treatment.

Thomas W. Postelle of Veneta wrote, "As an Army private flying on Delta Airlines to visit my family while on leave, I was spat upon ... not once, but twice."

Cheryl Criteser of Eugene wrote that she asked her Vietnam veteran husband whether he had ever been spat upon after returning home. "His response was that, while he had never been spat on, he had been spat at. In addition, he told me that he had been called 'baby killer' and, as he put it, 'every other name in the book.' ''

H. Hilliard Gastfriend of Eugene rebutted the letter by quoting from a 1967 New York Times story by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner James Reston. In his coverage of the massive October 1967 anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., Reston wrote:

"It is difficult to report publicly the ugly and vulgar provocation of many of the militants. They spat on some of the soldiers in the front line at the Pentagon and goaded them with the most vicious personal slander. Many of the signs carried by a small number of militants ... are too obscene to print."

Were such incidents exaggerated over the years because of their visceral impact and symbolism? That's still controversial among some academic researchers and Vietnam veterans. Researchers who maintain that spitting incidents were exaggerated theorize that shame over the treatment of returning Vietnam vets helps keep the stories alive: The nation spat on its veterans figuratively, if not literally.

Unfortunately, the treatment returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are receiving from government organizations hasn't changed enough since the Vietnam era. In addition to the scandalous neglect of wounded military personnel uncovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center's outpatient facilities, the Veterans Affairs department is underfunded and overwhelmed.

The Government Accountability Office and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes testified at a congressional hearing last week that the VA is on the verge of crisis due to backlogs, paperwork and ballooning costs.

Twenty-six percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought some service from the VA or a VA hospital, including 33 percent of Reservists and National Guard soldiers. The GAO found a claims backlog of about 600,000 and noted that it took between 127 and 177 days to process an initial claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal, creating a hardship for veterans.

That's not what Americans want for their veterans, and they expect Congress and the administration to quickly fix whatever's wrong with the system. It will cost billions, but so what?

The administration and Congress haven't had a bit of trouble so far finding billions to fund a war that's producing wounded veterans by the planeload. It would be unconscionable to claim there isn't enough money to care for the men and women President Bush ordered into battle when they come limping home.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Public's regard for veterans is much higher now
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 20, 2007
Previous Article:Civic Stadium's future to be settled `very soon'.

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