[sixties-l] Veterans Recall Stress of Combat, Empathize With Kerrey

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Sat Apr 28 2001 - 19:54:18 EDT

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       Friday, April 27, 2001; Page B1

            Veterans Recall Stress of Combat, Empathize With Kerrey

            By Steve Vogel and Fredrick Kunkle
            Washington Post Staff Writers

      Julius Becton had a choice.

      During the opening months of the Korean War in 1950, Becton, a
      24-year-old Army platoon commander, had been given a mission to clear out
      North Korean troops behind U.S. lines. Becton's men heard noises in a
      cave and feared enemy soldiers were holed up inside. A translator called
      in, but no one came out.

      Becton could send his soldiers in, possibly exposing them to enemy fire.
      Or they could toss in grenades and force out anyone inside.

      Becton chose the latter.

      "What came out was what Bob Kerrey saw: women, children, old men -- no
      soldiers," Becton recalled yesterday.

      For Becton, as for many other war veterans, there is strong empathy for
      Kerrey, the war hero and former U.S. senator who recently acknowledged
      that a dozen or more civilians were killed in a Navy SEAL operation he
      commanded during the Vietnam War.

      Many of the veterans have their own memories, and their own burdens.

      "Anyone who has been in uniform, particularly in uniform in combat, can
      relate to it," said Becton, a retired lieutenant general who sat next to
      Kerrey last week at Virginia Military Institute, where the former
      Democratic governor of Nebraska gave a speech disclosing the incident.

      Kerrey's choice -- which resulted in the deaths of at least 13 women and
      children at the village of Thang Phong -- must be viewed in the context
      of split-second, life-or-death decisions and terrifying flashes of fire
      at night, several decorated combat veterans said yesterday.

      For them, the disclosures about Kerrey are an unwelcome reminder of the
      days when people labeled Vietnam veterans baby-killers and sneered at
      their uniforms.

      "What do we gain by bringing it up again?" said H.C. "Barney" Barnum Jr.,
      a Marine Corps veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions
      during the Vietnam War. "All of us who have been in combat can sympathize
      with what happened."

      Most people who have not served in combat "don't understand the fog of
      war, the confusion, the tension," added Barnum, a Reston resident who is
      president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. "I know there's
      going to be a lot of second-guessing. My comment is, I wasn't there."

      In a New York Times Magazine article to be published Sunday, witnesses
      say that Kerrey deliberately ordered the killings of civilians so that
      his men could safely retreat from the village. If that allegation is
      proven true, it will be much more difficult to attribute the deaths to
      the confusion of war. Several veterans said they found the allegation --
      which Kerrey has denied -- unlikely.

      "I frankly believe what Bob Kerrey said," Becton said. "You don't
      deliberately kill women and children and old people."

      Kerrey's disclosure was a topic of conversation in Arlington yesterday at
      a monthly luncheon that Barnum attended with eight retired Marine
      colonels, all veterans of Vietnam. "We all knew incidents where
      friendlies got hurt," Barnum said. "It's not by design, but it's war."

      Alfred Rascon, a Howard County resident who was awarded the Medal of
      Honor last year for heroism during the Vietnam War, said: "No one can
      make second judgments of what happened, especially in combat. It's
      something you have to live with. You'll never know unless you were

      Rascon was an 18-year-old Army medic accompanying his reconnaissance
      platoon on a patrol in 1965 when it took fire from a hamlet. The soldiers
      immediately strafed the location. Within minutes, they learned that Viet
      Cong guerrillas had already abandoned the hamlet, leaving civilians to
      take American fire.

      "I was panicking: 'God, what the hell did we do?'" recalled Rascon.

      One villager, a pregnant woman, had been hit in the abdomen by an M-60

      Distraught soldiers had her evacuated on an Army gunship, dumping
      ammunition boxes to make room. Five hours later, she gave birth at an
      Army hospital, Rascon said. "I felt like I was part of it," he said.

      Likewise, Becton said his men in the 9th Infantry Regiment platoon gave
      medical treatment to Korean civilians wounded in the August 1950
      incident, but he is unsure whether any were killed. "I presume some were,
      but not many," he said.

      Becton's troops would later tell him that they had never seen him as
      shattered as he was that day. An Army chaplain tried to comfort the young

      "He said, 'Now before you condemn yourself, think about this: Would you
      have let your men go in there without shooting first? The answer is no.
      What else could you have done?'" recalled Becton, a former D.C. public
      schools chief who was awarded the Silver Star.

      Whether they had faced combat or not, a few veterans who visited the
      Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday agreed that no one should lightly
      judge another person's conduct in a do-or-die situation.

      "Things happen in war that a person's not responsible for," said Thomas
      Cooper, a retired postal employee from Georgia who served with the 199th
      Infantry Division at an ammunition depot in Long Binh. Cooper, who was
      wounded during the Tet Offensive, said the routine savageries and
      absurdities of life in the combat zone sometimes called into question
      whether there could even be such a thing as the ethics of war.

      "A lot of guys talked about, 'Let's just kill 'em all,' " he said. "Most
      of them were kidding. They were just kids."

      Combat can cloud judgments, Cooper said.

      Emotions veer wildly almost moment to moment, from profound fear to
      exhilaration, from the belief that you would be the next to die to the
      certainty that you would live forever.

      "Kerrey's a real war hero. We should treat him with respect because he's
      been there. A person who's not been in combat doesn't know," he said.

      Rascon said, "Hopefully, people will understand that [Kerrey's] not the
      only person, nor will he be the last."

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