Vets see protests as attack on policy

Pensacola New Journal

If there’s growing sentiment against the war in Iraq, many area veterans of the fight aren’t taking it personally.

Vets see the opposition as a protest against policy, not them or their service.

During the Vietnam War, many returning U.S. troops felt taunted, humiliated and treated with little or no respect. In contrast, today’s veterans say they don’t encounter animosity from people who don’t agree with the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

“I have run into people who don’t support the president’s views on Iraq or our objectives, but I haven’t run into a single person who said (he or she) doesn’t support the troops,” said Jason Crawford, a Purple Heart recipient who was shot in the face by opposition forces in December 2003 while in Iraq. “I think our society learned from Vietnam that it’s not the men and women who sacrifice their lives and signed on the dotted lines who make up the plans and objectives. I think pretty much everyone supports the troops.”

That’s even if they don’t approve of the U.S. involvement in Iraq that began in March 2003.

The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, released earlier this month, showed 56 percent of Americans believe things are going “badly” for the United States in Iraq. And 54 percent of people say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq.

“I didn’t believe we should have gone in there in the first place, and I’m still against the war,” said David Howell, 24, of Pensacola. “But I respect anyone over there trying to do their job. It’s not the troops’ fault, it’s the administration. (The troops are) a lot braver than me.”

While many troops wish more Americans would support the war effort, some said it’s heartening to know the folks back home wish them nothing but the best.

“They might not agree with (the war),” said Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan Bentele, 29, who returned from Iraq in May. “But they show us respect.”

It’s Vietnam veterans who are most appreciative, he said.

“They thank us the most,” he said. “They had a hard time coming back and are truly appreciative of the job we’re doing.”

John Pritchard, president of the Vietnam Veterans Wall South Foundation and past commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 706 in Pensacola, said any anti-war sentiment today pales compared to the heated demonstrations and protests of the 1960s.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to see street demonstrations like you did in the ’60s,” said Pritchard, 58. “Let’s face it, anyone who was an anti-war demonstrator during Vietnam is in their 50s or 60s now. It could be their grandchildren over there. I don’t think you’ll see the protests like we did then.”

The most publicized recent protest is led by Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif., who has camped near President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, since Aug. 6. Her son, Casey Sheehan, was killed five days after he arrived in Iraq last year.

Seeking a meeting with Bush, Sheehan earlier vowed to remain outside the ranch until the president returns to Washington on Sept. 3. She was forced to leave “Camp Casey” on Thursday night after her 74-year-old mother suffered a stroke. But she said she would return to the vigil at the ranch if possible.

Bentele said he feels for Cindy Sheehan but said she doesn’t speak for all soldiers’ families.

“There are a lot of moms who lost kids,” he said.

Army Reserves Lt. Col. Alice Bell, 46, who spent 10 months in Kuwait in support of the Iraq invasion, said she has heard nothing but praise since returning home.

“It’s not like in Vietnam, when they spat on troops coming back,” she said. “Some people don’t agree with the mission itself. But even if they’re against the war effort, they’re for the troops. They realize we’re doing what we have to do, what we’ve been ordered to do, whether we agree with it or not.”

Army National Guard Sgt. Shelton Johnson spent nearly a year in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. When he’s in uniform, people often stop to offer him a verbal salute, he said.

“In Wal-Mart, customers come over and say ‘Thank you,’ ” said Johnson, manager at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Milton. “Most people are just real appreciative toward the soldiers.”

Crawford, who now works for a health-care company, said he’s not hurt by anti-war protests. On the contrary, he feels protests are a vital part of American democracy.

“As long as they’re not defiant against the troops or the president, then I think it’s actually healthy for our society and government,” he said.

But Crawford and others believe there would be fewer protests and more support for military operations in Iraq if Americans had a clearer picture of what’s going on there.

“We really made a difference in the lives of the Iraqis, and we’re still making a difference,” he said. “We’re making progress. We’re going to continue to face resistance, but we have to work through that. We can have liberty, freedom and democracy in that region.

“It puts a smile on my face knowing that the things we did there didn’t happen in vain.”

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