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Veteran `Brothers' Face Up to War

At a Boston shelter, homeless vets are united in support of US troops in the Persian Gulf. ON THE HOME FRONT

By Cameron BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 1991



BOSTON

LONG the troubled baby brothers in the family of soldiers who have fought United States battles, the survivors of the Vietnam conflict have become ``sad big brothers to another generation of veterans,'' says Ken Smith, president of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. Sitting in his cramped office on Court Street, Mr. Smith moves from one crisis to another, a little wild-eyed, fielding phone calls and answering interruptions. He was an army medic in Vietnam, but now he provides respite from wounds caused by economic hardship and drug and alcohol dependency. ``My clients,'' he says of the 100-plus veterans who use the 14-month-old shelter, ``represent the effect of combat violence on the human psyche - untreated.''

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Despite their own concerns, residents of the shelter have watched closely the unfolding of the Gulf war. The night of the first US attack on Baghdad ``this place was unbelievably quiet,'' recalls Randy, a Vietnam veteran who declines to give his last name.

Shelter clients, most of them Vietnam veterans, are determined to voice support for ``the brothers in Saudi Arabia,'' as Smith puts it, so that history does not repeat itself. They want to make the way home smoother for the men and women who return from the war in the Persian Gulf.

So ``support the troops'' is a common, fervently used phrase in the shelter, but it's a sentiment that sometimes masks more complex reactions to the war.

In interviews, some of the veterans here say that a divided country, where protesters cheapen and undermine the sacrifices of those in combat, makes war, already bad enough, unbearably worse. Rick Cirrone, a Vietnam-era veteran who works at the shelter, is concerned about the antiwar demonstrations. The ``kids'' in Saudi Arabia ``need to know the US is backing them,'' he says. ``Just support ... the war.''

Another employee - at the shelter's front desk - is Gary Harding, a nonveteran whose brothers served in Vietnam. Mr. Harding won't go so far as to say that domestic divisions make war worse than it already is, but he says ``that's been the experience'' for the men in the shelter.

Mr. Cirrone says again, later: ``Without the support, these guys are dying.''

In Washington, Sen. Steven D. Symms (R) of Idaho is organizing congressional support for ``Operation Homefront,'' a mostly volunteer effort to help the families of those in the Gulf and ``to create the atmosphere for a rousing return'' for the troops, says Senator Symms's press secretary, Dave Pearson. ``What we are trying to avoid is the same kind of reception Vietnam veterans got.''

In the cases of veterans who oppose the war in the Gulf, the desire to avoid a repetition of the Vietnam experience is deep enough to stifle protest. Mary Stout, president of the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America, says the vast majority of her organization's members supports the Gulf war. ``Even the few who don't feel we ought to be there have a very strong feeling of support for the troops,'' she adds.

Kevin, a shelter resident in Boston who was a helicopter machine gunner in Vietnam, finds himself in a difficult situation. ``I really don't think Desert Storm was a good idea, but now that shots have been fired, I'm in an uncomfortable position - I have to support what's going on.'' He declines to give his last name.

Wearing a light-blue T-shirt and an idle Walkman tape player, Kevin is sitting in the cafeteria area of the shelter, a collection of bright-yellow, tight-fitting booths that must have come from a fast-food restaurant. He presides over a day-old copy of the Wall Street Journal and an ashtray that he steadily contributes to, along with a worn paperback of ``Lake Wobegon Days'' - he's reading the book for the third time.