LONG the troubled baby brothers in the family of soldiers who
have fought United States battles, the survivors of the Vietnam
conflict have become "sad big brothers to another generation of
veterans," says Ken Smith, president of the New England Shelter for
Sitting in his cramped office on Court Street, Mr. Smith moves
from one crisis to another, a little wild-eyed, fielding phone calls
and answering interruptions. He was an army medic in Vietnam, but
now he provides respite from wounds caused by economic hardship and
drug and alcohol dependency. "My clients," he says of the 100-plus
veterans who use the 14-month-old shelter, "represent the effect of
combat violence on the human psyche - untreated."
Despite their own concerns, residents of the shelter have watched
closely the unfolding of the Gulf war. The night of the first US
attack on Baghdad "this place was unbelievably quiet," recalls
Randy, a Vietnam veteran who declines to give his last name.
Shelter clients, most of them Vietnam veterans, are determined to
voice support for "the brothers in Saudi Arabia," as Smith puts it,
so that history does not repeat itself. They want to make the way
home smoother for the men and women who return from the war in the
So "support the troops" is a common, fervently used phrase in the
shelter, but it's a sentiment that sometimes masks more complex
reactions to the war.
In interviews, some of the veterans here say that a divided
country, where protesters cheapen and undermine the sacrifices of
those in combat, makes war, already bad enough, unbearably worse.
Rick Cirrone, a Vietnam-era veteran who works at the shelter, is
concerned about the antiwar demonstrations. The "kids" in Saudi
Arabia "need to know the US is backing them," he says. "Just support
... the war."
Another employee - at the shelter's front desk - is Gary Harding,
a nonveteran whose brothers served in Vietnam. Mr. Harding won't go
so far as to say that domestic divisions make war worse than it
already is, but he says "that's been the experience" for the men in
Mr. Cirrone says again, later: "Without the support, these guys
In Washington, Sen. Steven D. Symms (R) of Idaho is organizing
congressional support for "Operation Homefront," a mostly volunteer
effort to help the families of those in the Gulf and "to create the
atmosphere for a rousing return" for the troops, says Senator
Symms's press secretary, Dave Pearson. "What we are trying to avoid
is the same kind of reception Vietnam veterans got."
In the cases of veterans who oppose the war in the Gulf, the
desire to avoid a repetition of the Vietnam experience is deep
enough to stifle protest. Mary Stout, president of the
Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America, says the vast majority
of her organization's members supports the Gulf war. "Even the few
who don't feel we ought to be there have a very strong feeling of
support for the troops," she adds.
Kevin, a shelter resident in Boston who was a helicopter machine
gunner in Vietnam, finds himself in a difficult situation. "I really
don't think Desert Storm was a good idea, but now that shots have
been fired, I'm in an uncomfortable position - I have to support
what's going on." He declines to give his last name.
Wearing a light-blue T-shirt and an idle Walkman tape player,
Kevin is sitting in the cafeteria area of the shelter, a collection
of bright-yellow, tight-fitting booths that must have come from a
fast-food restaurant. He presides over a day-old copy of the Wall
Street Journal and an ashtray that he steadily contributes to, along
with a worn paperback of "Lake Wobegon Days" - he's reading the book
for the third time. …