Debate Continues Over Use of Vietnam in Election

Vietnam War veterans are generally quick with an opinion over the role their war played in the recent presidential election, but they appear as divided as the rest of the country about whether John Kerry’s war service and the accompanying controversy helped decide their vote.

And they are uncertain what impact the debate had on public perception of Vietnam veterans, in general.

"To be honest with you, my feeling is it depends on the political leanings of the veteran, it depends on their experience in Vietnam, and probably the period of time they served there," said John Summer, executive director of the Washington office of the American Legion (search) National Headquarters. "I don't think there is any hard and fast response."

Several Vietnam War veterans who recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to reunite, reflect and pay respects around Veterans Day, spoke with about the election, and many of them said the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (search) campaign was very effective in advancing the idea that Kerry had betrayed veterans in his testimony before Congress in 1971.

But not all of those surveyed thought the ads' effectiveness translated into votes.

"I don’t think it had a great effect," said Joe Catello, an Army veteran from Flemington, N.J. "I think it came down to those who supported Kerry and those who didn’t."

Catello didn’t; he voted for President Bush.

Others said Kerry's congressional testimony, in which he related stories by other veterans of atrocities committed by Americans on the battlefield as part of his broader brief against the war, did have some effect on veterans, and even on those who typically vote Democrat.

"No vet questioned his service — it’s because of the fact that he went in front of Congress and he lied," said Dennis D. Dunegan, an Army Airborne veteran from Allegheny County, Pa., who said he is a "lifelong" Democrat and is active in two local labor unions.

"I didn’t care what he did in Vietnam — he served and I applaud him for that. It’s what he did after," said Joe McDermott, who served with Dunegan in the Army and now lives in Washington, D.C. "I didn’t want to vote for Bush — I think the war in Iraq is wrong — but I could not vote for Kerry."

But other veterans say it was Kerry's right to speak out against the Vietnam War (search), which was widely unpopular among Americans in 1971, and resulted in the deaths of more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women.

Richard Johannes, an Army veteran from Pleasant Valley, N.Y., said it was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who twisted Kerry’s testimony and his service, and undercut his campaign. "If one of those guys came up to me right now I would tell them they were full of s—-," he said. "Those gentlemen have no honor."

Ron Bleemer, a Navy veteran from Bedminster, N.J., who voted for Bush, nonetheless said the Swift Boat controversy had nothing to do with it. "It’s past history, we don’t care," he said. "[Kerry] wasn’t against the soldiers. We want to hear what [the candidates] are doing now."

Bobby Muller, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America (search) and current president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, demonstrated against the war when he returned from Vietnam 30 years ago, paralyzed from the chest down.

He said it was "old news" by the time Kerry testified in 1971 that the war was on the wrong track and atrocities were committed by U.S. soldiers. Muller said Kerry detractor John O'Neill (search) has been a political partisan since he was recruited by President Richard Nixon to denounce Kerry 30 years ago, and he hasn't stopped since.

"I've just been in awe of how this campaign by O'Neill and the others distorted the nature of Kerry's service and distorted the nature of Kerry's testimony, and managed to cost him the election," said Muller. "It was easy with $15 million behind them in a coordinated communication strategy. It was a smear."

Nick Godano, an Army veteran from Patterson, N.Y., and a Bush supporter, had a different take.

"Kerry was a traitor," he said.

Most veterans agree that not enough attention was given to other veterans’ issues — like health care and preparations for the return of the Iraq war soldiers. They say they hope these topics won't fade into the background with the end of the 2004 campaign. Though the National Exit Poll did not single out Vietnam-era veterans, veteran voters said they picked Bush over Kerry 57 to 41 percent.

"Both parties did us a tremendous disservice — with this National Guard/Vietnam" back and forth, said Marshall Wilkes, an Army veteran from Alabaster, Ala.

A staunch conservative, Wilkes said he is against the war in Iraq, but "held his nose and voted for Bush" because Kerry’s use of his Vietnam service turned him off.

"I have never met a veteran who said, 'Look at me, I am a hero,' until Kerry came along. That offended me more than anything else," he said.

"I think it took away from important issues, domestic and otherwise," said Jerry Sopko, a veteran from Penn Township, Pa. The Vietnam War "shouldn’t have been a ploy to be used" only for the campaign, he said.

Muller, who said conservatives "propagandized" Vietnam for their purposes, had harsher words. "The overwhelming majority of these [Vietnam veterans] have been sickened by the distortions, the use of the Vietnam experience to serve the political partisans of this election."

"For me and other veterans it's mind-numbing, it's sickening, it's unbelievable," he said, adding that the lack of frank, honest talk about the Vietnam War dooms the country from making the same mistakes again, like in Iraq.

Vietnam veterans who spoke to acknowledge that they have been struggling with an image problem since the war ended 30 years ago. Unlike World War II veterans, they weren’t greeted as victors or heroes when they returned home. In fact, some faced hostility from members of their own generation who had been protesting the war at home and didn't separate their anger about the war policy from the soldiers who had fought it.

Over the years, while many Vietnam veterans have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and its related mental health and domestic problems, a debate has raged over the utility of American involvement in Vietnam. The Vietnam veterans are the largest veterans group alive today and are moving into an age where they will need more health care and other services.

That’s why any attention paid to this group now is good for the long term, Gordano said.

"I think anytime you shed light on the subject, bring it up for debate, especially 30 years later, even if it wasn’t as everyone had seen it, it is good," said Gordano.

"I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all," added Johannes. "And there is still the matter of setting the record straight. And I think it will help the guys coming back [from Iraq]."