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Some vets view day with pride, resentment

Email|Print| Text size + By Anna Badkhen
Globe Staff / November 12, 2007

As troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan observe Veterans Day today, they will be cheered by a supportive nation and a government that has developed an elaborate network of benefits and services to ease their transition to civilian life.

Celebrating also, Vietnam War veterans like Charles S. Brown, 57, will look on with a mix of pride and resentment.

Veterans like Brown, a disabled former Marine radio operator who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, see today's safety net of federal and state programs for veterans as a direct result of their yearslong postwar battle for support and recognition. But the welcome that today's veterans receive also reminds them of their bitter homecoming, to a hostile country that accused them of being "baby killers" and whose government was not prepared to recognize and address their wounds and needs.

"We made it a goal of ours to make sure these guys wouldn't be forgotten when they came home," said Brown, who heads the Massachusetts Foundation for the Advancement of Vietnam Veterans, Inc. "We've made this happen. It wasn't there for us.

"I'd say there is a lot of jealousy," said Brown. "They are fighting for the same flag that we fought for."

The programs designed to help veterans today are frequently criticized as imperfect and lopsided, and the agencies that provide them as overwhelmed and dysfunctional. But they aim to address almost every aspect of a veteran's life.

In Massachusetts, the state's approximately 476,000 veterans - including 147,000 who fought in Vietnam - have access to medical facilities run by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and can receive free treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, said Alison Goodwin, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Health and Human Services.

Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who reside in Massachusetts are entitled to a package that includes a check for $500 to $1,000, a onetime loan for up to $10,000 at a 3 percent interest rate, and free education at all state colleges and universities. On its website, Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services advises returning veterans on the dangers and consequences of traumatic brain injury, which many scientists call the signature trauma of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and encourages veterans who suspect they might have the injury to seek immediate healthcare.

Vietnam veterans feel that these benefits and services are "part of the legacy that they have created" after their war, when they spent years campaigning for the government to recognize and address their problems, said Kevin Bowen, who heads the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

American troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, but it took the government until 1980 to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a common fallout of combat. It took the government years to link high rates of heart disease and diabetes among veterans to Agent Orange, an herbicide the US military used to kill vegetation in the Vietnamese jungle during the Vietnam War.

"These benefits weren't there when they came back, they had to fight for them," said Bowen, who served in Vietnam with the First Air Cavalry Division in 1968-69. "We had to fight for our G.I. Bill. We had to fight for the tuition waiver. We know about PTSD because of what happened after Vietnam."

Today, Vietnam War veterans can take advantage of many of these new programs. But help may have arrived too late for Ken Alingman, 60, who served as a helicopter door gunner with an Army long range reconnaissance unit in 1968-69. When night falls, Alingman often thinks he is being shot at. When he picks up the phone, his first impulse is "to call in an airstrike."

Alingman, of New London, Conn., blames the fact that his post-traumatic stress disorder went unaddressed and untreated for years for the way his life after Vietnam spiraled into a vortex of drug and alcohol abuse accompanied by frequent stints in jail. He will celebrate this Veterans Day at a shelter for homeless veterans in Northampton.

Many support groups run by Vietnam War veterans are helping troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan avoid Alingman's fate, said Geri Unger, who works at one such organization, the Nam Vets Association in Hyannis.

"The main concern is now to make sure our kids are safe," Unger said.

Brown, whose group also helps veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed. When "I came home, people would spit on my father's car, call me a baby killer," he said. "We made a promise to these kids that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that we'll never let that happen again."

Brown takes credit for making sure veterans today are treated "with honors." But his sense of pride is tinged with bitterness.

"I think Americans tried to apologize for the mistakes they made in our coming home. But I think a lot of the guys feel it's too little, too late," he said. "I feel a certain amount of resentment."

Anna Badkhen can be reached at abadkhen@globe.com

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