Gulf Vets Return to Storm Of Ticker Tape and Benefits

COMING HOME

RETURNING American GIs will be able to get discounts on T-bone steaks in Ohio, free tours of movie studios in Los Angeles, and cut-rate baseball tickets. There will be cheap airline fares, free college tuition, and perhaps free hunting licenses in Alabama. Giddy over a war that went so well, Americans are preparing to coddle their newest veterans as none have been since World War II.

From ticker tape in New York to free lodging in California's wine country, the 540,000 soldiers returning from the Persian Gulf will be lavished with perks and parades by a nation eager to exorcise past haunts and doubts.

And the benevolence won't stop there. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers eager to show their appreciation in red, white, and blue have introduced enough veterans-benefit bills to fill a humvee.

``This is the first war we've won in 45 years,'' says Stephen Ambrose, a military historian at the University of New Orleans. ``It is a time for boasting.''

Yet a nation too exultant in triumph runs the risk of becoming trigger-happy, experts warn, and the euphoria raises complex emotions for those from wars past whose homecomings were less cordial.

The calls have been picking up at some Vietnam-vet counseling centers across the country.

Emotions run the gamut: joy that returning GIs are receiving the embrace they deserve, but a lingering sense of betrayal that theirs was not the same.

Many Vietnam vets feel the country did learn a lesson from their travail: No matter what you think of war, don't take it out on those who do the fighting.

``They feel almost a vindication in the current outpouring,'' says Paul Egan of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

``It helps in the healing process,'' says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Balm for the nation

Celebration can be a balm for the nation, too. After years of shuttle debacles, doubts about technological prowess, endless government scandals, tales of woe from Detroit, warnings of failed schools, along comes something Americans, rightly or wrongly, can cheer about.

``The feelings of inadequacy that came out of Vietnam in essence were put behind us by what happened in the Gulf war,'' says Kevin Byrne, a historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

``The euphoria can be very real and genuine and nice for the soldiers,'' Dr. Byrne adds. ``But there is a concern about how this reinforces the tendency to seek military solutions to international problems.''

Geopolitics won't be on the minds of those welcoming troops home. Already, the party has begun: Friends and relatives - some of whom journeyed across country - greet members of the 24th Infantry in a midnight embrace at Fort Stewart, Ga.; a saxophone rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in Bangor, Maine, stirs the 82nd Airborne, which is passing through to North Carolina; flags and goose bumps emerge at a reunion of soldiers and civilians in Chicopee, Mass.

The celebrations will get bigger as more return. After World War II, the Pentagon parceled out generals for victory parades like bullion - George Patton to Boston, Omar Bradley to New York.

The requests are already coming in to the White House for America's newest ``heroes'': Gens. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces, and Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Parades and benefits

In Hampton Roads, Va., 40,000 feet of yellow ribbon has been wrapped around a bridge. Town fathers are gearing up for mass rallies in Oceanside, Calif., near Camp Pendleton.

New York City promises a ticker-tape parade like none before. It hopes to raise $5 million in private donations for the extravaganza.

So far, says Joseph Flom, a key organizer, ``the response by volunteers has been the most overwhelming I've seen in all my time of doing charities.''

In Congress, the focus isn't on parades - though one lawmaker is proposing a mass rally in Washington, D.C. - but benefits.

Dozens of bills have been introduced to help Desert Storm veterans, with lawmakers at times spatting over who is more sincere in their intentions.

The proposals are wide ranging: waiving the 10 percent penalty for withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts, extending the period of unemployment compensation for troops laid off from the military, protection against rental evictions for those who served in the Gulf.

Not all will pass - differences exist, for instance, over how to fund the proposals. But a comprehensive package is expected to emerge. Of one package in the House, a Democratic staff member says: ``There has probably been nothing equal to it since the GI Bill after World War II.''

Free tuition, steaks

What Congress won't give, states and companies probably will. Minnesota lawmakers are considering free college tuition for veterans, while Nevada may give those who served in the Gulf 24 free semester credits.

In Alabama, one lawmaker proposes free driver's licenses and hunting and fishing licenses.

Military personnel in California will be able to tour Universal Studios free. Airlines are offering soldiers up to 70 percent off on airfares, and the Steak Escape, an Ohio-based restaurant chain, is giving discounts on meals.

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