Planning for Gulf GIs' Homecoming

Idaho senator offers an initiative that aims to encourage grass-roots support across US

VIETNAM veterans groups are rallying around a plan to protect Operation Desert Storm troops from the kind of homecoming that soldiers received on their return from the Vietnam War. Although local examples abound, Congress is also getting into the act through support for ``Operation Homefront,'' an initiative of Sen. Steve Symms (R) of Idaho.

Mr. Symms is proposing nothing more elaborate than congressional encouragement and moral support for grass-roots committees preparing a noisy and enthusiastic welcome home for American soldiers.

Calling for parades, rallies, support services for soldiers' families, and discount coupons for everything from ski-lift tickets to sneakers, the senator several weeks ago kicked off ``Operation Homefront.'' A former US marine, Symms has put his in-state staff at the disposal of local groups organizing support for the troops.

At last report, a US Senate resolution supporting the plan had gained 16 co-sponsors in addition to praise from veterans' groups.

``There is room for disagreement about US policy in the Persian Gulf,'' Symms said when he announced Operation Homefront.

``It is my fervent hope, however, that disagreement is limited to policy, and that the fine men and women we've put in harm's way do not suffer the public scorn which greeted veterans returning from Vietnam,'' Symms said.

``Nothing tears at my heart more than the reception Vietnam veterans received upon returning home,'' he said. ``Many of those who served in Southeast Asia disagreed with the war, yet they answered the call and served their country. They should have received a hero's welcome when they came home.''

Veterans groups have signed on. ``We have unequivocally, unanimously endorsed that initiative,'' said J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam Veterans coalition, which represents about 50 veterans groups and nearly a half-million Vietnam veterans.

``One of the problems we felt the most strongly [in Vietnam] was a lack of public support at home,'' Mr. Burch said. ``Not so much a lack of support for the war as a lack of support for us as fighting men.''

Burch said that while the phrase ``Never Again'' has mostly been used in recent weeks to describe the US commitment to wage unrestrained war against Iraq, it has become a watchword of support among Vietnam veterans groups who are committed to protecting Desert Storm warriors from humiliation at home.

``We want to make sure all these men are not treated as we were,'' he said, ``We're very interested in what happens when they come home.''

Symms' initiative to help plan hero's welcomes for soldiers returning from the Gulf is also winning support from those who are helping heal the psychological scars of the last US war.

``That would be the best thing that could happen,'' said James Funk, a counselor at the Vietnam Veterans outreach center in Spokane, Wash.

If people follow up on Symms' suggestion, Mr. Funk said, veterans of the war with Iraq may suffer less than Vietnam War veterans did.

In Vietnam, soldiers endured combat in a fight for ill-defined objectives and then returned home to silence or humiliation, he said.

``A lot of the trauma I believe was compounded by the reception a lot of the Vietnam vets received,'' Funk said. ``They had these people screaming at them, `Baby Killers!' ''

``When an experience is shrouded in shame and silence, that's when the symptoms can get really severe,'' Funk said.

In Symms' home state, Kootenai County veterans service officer Larry Grow said he's hoping even people who disapprove of the war in Iraq will help soldiers make the transition back into civilian life.

``Whether we agree with why we're over that or not doesn't have anything to do with it,'' he said. ``We need to support the troops. Many of them are going to come back looking for acceptance of what they have done.''

At least one national veterans group has expressed support for Mr. Symms' idea and the others like it which are springing up nationwide.

``I think it's going to make a difference, remembering that the Vietnam veterans came home to not just an unwelcome reception, but a negative reception,'' said Paul Egan, legislative director of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

He said the general public is better informed about the psychological costs of war now than they were 20 years ago, which may lead to more support for returning soldiers.

And in a change from the Vietnam War, Mr. Egan said protesters against the war with Iraq seem to be aiming their dissent at politicians instead of soldiers.

``I don't have anything more than anecdotal information, but there seems to be an effort to differentiate between their disagreement with the policy and their willingness to support the soldiers,'' Egan said.

Egan said he's hoping the support for soldiers returning from service in the war on Iraq will last longer than a parade or a rally.

``It can't hurt, but I hope that as the troops begin to return to this country we can count on people like Steve Symms to support initiatives that are going to cost some money to help the Veterans Administration take care of these people.''

``When the parades are over, it won't be then time to wash our hands of the entire matter,'' Egan said. ``Then it gets down to the tough business of putting into place the programs that are going to help these folks.''

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