The War Vet Generation Gap

Camaraderie is in short supply between Iraq returnees and older veterans.

Late last year, suffering from sleepless nights and depression, a Bellingham veteran named Mike recently back from Iraq put an ad on Craigslist. "To all OEF or OIF vets," he wrote, desperate for contact with others who had served in either Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan) or Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mike (who requests that his last name be withheld because he might go back to Iraq with a military contractor that frowns upon media interviews) had been down to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and had opened up to a few of the Vietnam vets who primarily populate the place. "It's really hard to get support from a Vietnam vet," Mike says, having felt from them a certain jaundiced view of the suffering experienced by younger vets. "Yeah, you're screwed," they'd say. "That's never going to leave you." "You're telling me I'm going to be having nightmares for the rest of my life?" he asks, mimicking a typical conversation. "Absolutely," they'd say. "You don't want to hear that," Mike says. It was the smell that Mike couldn't put out of his mind: Once he walked into a trauma center right after an air raid and caught the aroma of burning flesh, thereby acquiring the unwanted knowledge that a baby's decaying body smells sweeter than an adult's. Though he didn't end up starting his own support group, Mike began attending a newly formed group counseling session at the Bellingham Vet Center. He also joined a local chapter of a national organization called Veterans of Modern Warfare, open to soldiers returning from the current conflict as well as from the first Gulf War. VMW is one of a handful of groups that have sprung up recently to cater to younger vets. In part, they owe their existence to what VMW president Julie Mock calls "a huge generational difference" between today's veterans and those of prior wars. And while traditional groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars say they are trying to attract returning soldiers—essentially to save themselves from extinction—they aren't having much luck. In part, the issue is simply age. "It's useful to remember that we're much older than World War II vets were when we came home," says Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America. Whereas Vietnam vets faced a 20-something–year gap with the World War II set, the Vietnam War ended 33 years ago. Weidman says his group discussed whether to open its rolls to current veterans, but decided instead to mentor VMW, which his organization considers its "heir." Over lunch at VFW Post 2995 in Redmond, one of the larger affiliates in the Seattle area, Mock tells of first walking into the place seven years ago looking for "some fellowship from people of my generation." A 41-year-old, auburn-haired Woodinville resident, Mock served in the Gulf War and subsequently developed symptoms consistent with Gulf War syndrome, including tremors, rashes, and a diagnosis of atypical multiple sclerosis. But that fellowship "really wasn't happening," she says with a laugh, nodding at the roomful of elders. At tables on either side of her are patrons with walkers; a flyer by a small dance floor advertises an upcoming performance of the "Foxtrot Orchestra"; and in a side room, two octogenarian World War II vets are playing pool. The attitude toward women Mock encountered from the older set didn't help either. She says a woman working in the kitchen on that first visit asked her if she wanted to join the ladies' auxiliary, which comprises military daughters, wives, and grandmothers. "I said, 'No, I'm a veteran,'" Mock recalls. "She said, 'I am too!'" Two years ago, Mock helped found VMW, a spinoff of the National Gulf War Resource Center. Mock wants VMW, with 700 members and 14 chapters around the country, to become certified by Congress as an organization capable of filing benefit claims on behalf of veterans, something she feels can be done best by people who served in the same war and "know what to look for." In the current conflict, that means post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and, according to Mock, sexual harassment suffered by female soldiers. "We're not trying to steal anybody's thunder," says Brandon Freitas, a VMW member in Pullman. Rather, the 35-year-old former Air Force captain can't conceive of older veterans relating to the experiences of modern soldiers. For one, he says, today's war is urban. Vietnam, by contrast, was fought in the jungle. Technology also plays an unprecedented role. Freitas says he served at the Central Command base in Qatar, where he was surrounded by computer screens and eight 5-foot-by-5-foot video monitors that constantly streamed images from high-tech surveillance equipment. Freitas' job was to keep tabs on the entire Middle East and alert bases when missiles from either Iraq or nearby countries were detected. "If I was to sit down and tell [older vets] what I did, they wouldn't begin to understand what I was talking about," he says. Mike Colson, a counselor at the Seattle Vet Center who provides outreach to returning vets, says there's another barrier to intergenerational camaraderie: the competitiveness of military culture. A while ago, when the death toll in Iraq was lower, he says he witnessed a Vietnam vet say to a returning soldier: "You guys haven't even lost 3,000. Shit, we lost that in the Tet." A former Navy chaplain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colson belongs to the American Legion post in Stanwood, where "there's a lot of blathering, and guys getting up saluting the flag"—not something, he says, that appeals to younger veterans just back from the war who "have a lot of quandaries about what they just went through." Questions are running through their minds, he says, such as: "Did I just get manhandled? Did I participate in atrocities? That will make their patriotism seem more ambivalent." Vietnam vets also agonized over some of the same questions, but Colson says a shift has happened over time. "They have taken years to think through what it means to fight in a war that's been politicized," he says, and as they came to feel pride in their service, they began waving the flag again "with maturity." Back at the VFW's Redmond post, World War II vets Don Johnson and John Kenny take a break from playing pool to show how they're trying to help current soldiers. They wind down a stairway to a meeting room in back, where volunteer Leah Erickson is working on care packages the post sends by the hundreds every week to troops overseas. She unpacks one package, pulling out cookies, beef jerky, magazines, and a Beanie Baby (soldiers give toys to local Middle Eastern children, Kenny says). Johnson adds that when soldiers come home, the VFW welcomes them to join "with open arms." But post commander Tom Smith acknowledges that "not very many" recent returnees have joined, nor by and large have Gulf War vets. Smith is a Gulf War vet himself, and at 55 he's known around the post as "the kid." With World War II vets dying off, the post has lost 38 members since last June (it currently has 1,025). Without new recruits, he says, "It's a challenge to keep members growing or even stable at many chapters." The American Legion is experiencing similar problems, says Jim Landerdahl, commander of Post 1, the oldest and biggest post in Seattle with 360 members. A Vietnam vet, Landerdahl connects with his younger comrades by volunteering at Sea-Tac Airport's United Service Organizations' facility, which feeds and entertains troops in transport. His post has launched a Web site to draw in new recruits, but so far it has attracted "probably only a handful" of fresh faces, and the University District post has already closed for lack of members. At Galloping Gerties, a cafe near Fort Lewis, a dark-haired Iraq vet who's still on active duty (and who declines to give his name, per military discouragement from media interviews) says he doesn't think too much of the outreach made by traditional veterans' groups. Though he has a Britney Spears Beanie Baby stored away in a closet, he says he only got the package in which it came because his parents knew people at his hometown VFW. "No one's coming to us, asking how they can help," he says, bitterly. "Not the VFW or anyone." His dining companion, however, says he had a good experience with the VFW in his Ohio hometown after his parents signed him up for membership while he was in Iraq. There are some things soldiers know across generations, like not to ask too many questions of a recent returnee. "The only thing they said was 'Welcome home'," he says. "It was wonderful."

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