United By Inglorious Wars
At a memorial dedication, Soviet Afghanistan veterans receive support from Americans who fought in Vietnam
MOSCOW — TREMBLING with emotion, his eyes tearing, Alexei Subotin accosts the head of the American group of Vietnam veterans just as the ceremony dedicating a new memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan is ending. ``We only want peace,'' he begins, then stops, at a loss, his gaze fixed and beseeching.
He looks at a group of young teens attending the ceremony as part of their civic duty as young Pioneers - a Soviet youth group.
``I can remember when my son was just that age,'' he says. ``Why did this have to happen?''
Subotin's 19-year-old son, Mikhail, was killed in Afghanistan in 1986.
Shad Meshad, the American group leader, puts his arm around Subotin. He has no easy answers, just as there had been no easy explanation for the relatives of the 50,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam.
``It's very important for you to share your feelings,'' he says finally. ``You must talk about your loss.''
The loss, the nightmares, the rejection and the bitterness at having fought a futile war - the 15 American veterans on a visit to Moscow last month shared it all with bereaved families and the young Soviet veterans going through much of what they themselves experienced 15 or 20 years ago.
The Vietnam vets say they made the journey to help the Afghanistan veterans, commonly known as ``Afghantsy,'' take the first steps toward healing their war wounds: purging their horrors by talking about them and organizing to get fellow veterans the help they need, both from each other and from the society that sent them to fight a secret war in the harsh mountains far to the south.
The dedication ceremony in Lyubertsi, a town just outside Moscow, reflects the Afghantsy's efforts to tear away the draping of good will and glory that officials used to cover the eight-year Soviet presence in Afghanistan.
As the Americans approach the site, a uniformed lieutenant takes Mr. Meshad aside and says, ``We hope you understand that the war was a mistake, but we were just soldiers doing our duty.''
``We understand,'' Meshad says. ``We were the same thing.''
The simple stone erected to the 23 soldiers from Lyubertsi who were killed has none of the usual rhetoric about ``fulfillment of international duty.'' And in one brief speech, the head of the local club for Afghantsy mourns the boys who died ``in an undeclared war that led only to harm and pain for our people.''
The two groups share ``the whole psychic trauma of being in an unpopular war,'' Meshad says.
Western sources estimate that 15,000 Soviets were killed in battle in Afghanistan, an additional 10,000 died of disease and 35,000 were injured. Three hundred are still missing.
Although the Vietnam veterans fell naturally into the role of older brothers trying to help the Afghantsy avoid their own mistakes, many of them commented that the young Soviet men already seemed to be recovering faster than they had.
``The Afghantsy are already way ahead of us at the same point in time after the war,'' says Dan Reed, a former Marine corporal from Iowa. ``They don't withdraw as much into themselves, they're closer to unity than we were or still are today.
``This generation is going to be the can-do generation in the Soviet Union,'' he predicts.
The Afghantsy are already moving beyond personal support networks to a fledgling national organization.
Most of the American veterans' contacts came through a new union of Afghantsy called ``Dolg,'' which means duty. Independent of the government, the union aims to unite scattered Afghantsy clubs into a national group that helps bereaved families and fights for better conditions for veterans, especially the handicapped.
Dolg and the American veterans are considering potential joint ventures between the Afghantsy and US veterans' groups, including a joint farm. The Americans even brought Dolg a fax machine to help foster their business ties.
Dolg also helped set up a trip to the United States for more than 20 of the Afghantsy that began in late May.
``I want to learn, to see how the Vietnam vets did it,'' says Igor Morozov. ``They, too, came home at age 20 with nothing.
``The first phase you go through is being all upset,'' he says. ``But that passes, and then you're always fighting, but that passes too. And then comes the time for concrete steps, and that's what we're reaching now.''
The veterans focused on their similarities: ``We're alike in so many ways,'' says Afghan vet Nikolai Chuvanov. ``We've been through all the same things, we understand each other. Now we have to get together and do everything we can to stop the pain.''
But their differences stand out as well. The Americans had to face widespread hostility from their antiwar peers when they returned home. The Afghantsy generally have to deal only with ingratitude, although there have been cases of insults and of piles of garbage appearing near young soldiers' graves in crude symbols of contempt.
Instead, the Aghantsy's special problem, Meshad says, was the necessity to keep their battles a secret until the government allowed more open discussion of the war in 1985.
``They weren't even allowed to say they were in Afghanistan,'' says Meshad, a mental health administrator from Los Angeles. ``People would ask you where you lost your leg or your arm and you'd have to say, `Oh, on maneuvers around Kiev.' That was very traumatic for them.''
In one of the strangest ironies of the growing closeness between the veterans' groups, many of them ``were shot down with each other's weapons,'' Meshad says.
A former US Army captain, Meshad was shot down in a helicopter by a Soviet-made AK47 assault rifle. And Nikolai Chuvanov lost his leg in a hit by an American-made M16 rifle. But that does not hinder their friendship, Meshad says.
The old grievances fade beneath a common call for peace.
``We must learn to forgive,'' Meshad says. ``Believe me, it is the only alternative to war.''