Vietnam Redux in 2004

The last time the Vietnam War (search) loomed so large in a presidential election, it was 1972 and American soldiers were still fighting an elusive enemy in Southeast Asia. But the war has taken center stage again as both parties seek the support of Vietnam veterans — turning to them as the emerging elder statesmen among American war veterans.

At a conference this past week, on the 40th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (search), the Vietnam Veterans of America (search) urged its members to make their voices heard.

"This election is probably more important than any election for president since the Vietnam era," Navy veteran Ed Vick, recently retired chairman of advertising giant Young and Rubicam, told the roughly 550 veterans at the convention Wednesday. "We must vote."

For Vietnam veterans — many of whom once felt disconnected from mainstream politics and ostracized by other veteran groups — it's surprising to be an important part of the 2004 presidential election.

"I had no idea I would be in the position I am now," said David Chung, a VVA member who said he returned from the war homeless. "A lot of people thought or hoped Vietnam would go away, but 30 years later it is at the center of things."

Many veterans see parallels between the current war in Iraq (search) and the one they fought in. The enemy uses guerrilla tactics, casualties are mounting and public opinion is wavering.

Bill Chapman, a VVA member from Cocoa, Fla., remembers joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars (search) when he returned from Vietnam and being told he didn't fight in a real war.

"Back then, VFW, the American Legion (search) really didn't want anything to do with us," said Tom Meinhardt of Michigan. "Now they are begging us to join their outfits."

Democratic candidate John Kerry (search), a founding member of the VVA, is making his Vietnam experience a key part of his campaign, partly to highlight that President Bush (search) skipped serving in Vietnam. In response, conservative groups are bringing out veterans to question Kerry's service.

That conflict sometimes evokes memories of the divisiveness that gripped the country during and after the Vietnam War, veterans said.

Many VVA members at the convention were hesitant to talk about the current political scene for fear of seeming to publicly endorse one candidate over another. Along with the group's connection to Kerry, its members include officials of the Bush administration such as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who also addressed delegates Wednesday.

Others, like Chung, hold a strong opinion that Kerry abandoned his comrades by returning home and opposing the war.

The VVA said it never endorses a candidate.

Putting their war in the middle of an election battle threatens to fracture the group.

"It has caused some inner strife in the chapters," Chapman said. "You have die-hard Republicans and you have Democrats, too, and it's tearing some chapters apart like never before. After the election, we need to remember we will still be brothers."

"Ours was one of the most controversial wars in history," Chapman said. "I'm still not over it, and it's more than 30 years ago."

The VVA is pressing the issue of Veterans Administration health care, hoping the political focus on their war and their members will translate into more money for what they say is an underfunded hospital system that denies benefits to 200,000 veterans because it runs out of money annually. It also wants to make sure the current crop of soldiers gets better government support.

"I'm not taking either side (of the presidential debate), I'm taking the side of us," Vick said. "When we say to our government, 'Do you care?' The answer should be, 'Yes, yes we care.'"