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Comrades in arms

Steve Benson
Lt. Col. USAR (Ret) Janis Nark of Aspen outside her home Thursday morning July 8, 2004. Nark says she hope people learned from the mistreatment of returning Vietnam Veterans and to support the troops in Iraq although they may be against the war. "What I'm hoping for is that people separate the warrior from the war," she says. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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They were spit on, pelted with garbage, called names like “baby killer,” and banished by the society they thought they were defending.In exchange for their service, many Vietnam veterans were welcomed home with hatred, never given the thanks or respect they deserved. “You don’t get over it,” said Hugh Roberts, of Old Snowmass, who served in the Air Force in Vietnam in 1966-67. “Vietnam was a tremendous experience – something you never get over.” Nearly 30 years after the official end of the Vietnam War, the deadliest American conflict since that time is now raging in Iraq. As of Thursday, 867 service members have died since the start of the war in March 2003. With the pain of their memories still haunting them today, Vietnam veterans are determined to make sure veterans from Iraq don’t suffer through the same humiliation and isolation. And the older veterans intend to give those coming home from Iraq the support they never had. While comparisons have been drawn between Vietnam and Iraq, particularly on the political front, most local Vietnam veterans believe that’s a stretch. After all, the scale of Iraq is minute compared to Vietnam, which claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. But war is still war, and the bond that unites troops in combat also unites them at home. Nobody knows that better than Vietnam veterans, who had only one another to rely on when their fellow citizens turned their backs on them.In the darkFor many Vietnam veterans, the home front was as bad as the war itself. The rampant unpopularity of the conflict forced some veterans into a state of isolation, where they remained for years.

“I didn’t talk about Vietnam for 20 years,” said Janis Nark, a Snowmass Village resident who served as a nurse on the central coast of Vietnam in 1970-71. “Nobody wanted to hear about it – I was in the dark.” Nark didn’t realize she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder until she was treating troops wounded in the first Gulf War – 20 years after her service in Vietnam ended. Many Vietnam veterans say they dealt with the horrors of the war alone, before eventually finding support in one another. Roberts and Nark have both been friends with people for years before learning that they, too, are Vietnam veterans. Bob Perigo, of Carbondale, who spent two-and-a-half tours in Vietnam in a special operations river unit from 1965-67, acted out his frustrations with anger. “I went from combat to being on the street and I had a hard time adjusting with my co-workers – I couldn’t hold a job,” Perigo said. “People we’re saying things like, ‘I just want to know if you’re a f—ing baby killer.’ It was very disconcerting to me and I’d respond physically.” Perigo said he got in fights and all too often was in trouble with the law in the years immediately following his discharge. “That’s not a real rosy part of my past, but nobody knew what I was going through.”Dan Glidden, an Aspen police officer who served in Vietnam in 1969-70, didn’t know anybody on his flight over to Vietnam. He came back the same way. On the streets of Aspen, his hometown, he felt ignored. “Its hard to deal with … tough to deal with,” Glidden said. “You’ve done something that you thought was right, and nobody seems to care.” Despite the obvious differences between the two conflicts, troops coming home from Iraq today will, like troops returning from Vietnam back in the ’60s and ’70s, be recovering from an experience nobody wants to hear about or can possibly understand unless they were there.Separating war and warrior

If there is a similarity between Iraq and Vietnam, it’s in the broad questioning of war and its rational. What is our justification for being in Iraq? What was it in Vietnam? And are Americans dying for no good reason today, as many believe they were back then? According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released on June 24, 2004, 54 percent of the 1,005 Americans polled said it was a mistake to send U.S. troops into Iraq. As support for the war continues to diminish, so, too, may the image of U.S. troops, who have endured the nightmare of Abu Ghraib and footage from Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit: 9/11,” which at times portrays some service members as savage and immoral. Despite the growing unpopularity of the war, many local Vietnam veterans – close to 60 in the Roaring Fork Valley – believe patriotism in this country is strong and the mistakes society made more than 30 years ago won’t be repeated. Roberts is sure troops returning from Iraq will not experience the hostility he met upon returning from Vietnam, no matter how unpopular the war becomes. “My friend was the first man off the plane, his parents were there to meet him, and a protester went up and spit a hole mouthful of spit in his face – he got most of it, I got the rest,” Roberts recalled, choking back tears. “We had guys get shot, guys get killed, and then to come back and get spit on at the airport, first thing off the plane … for God’s sake.”Nark, now a board member on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial fund in Washington, D.C., believes the general public has learned to “separate the warrior from the war.” Earlier this summer, the Traveling Wall, a 4/5-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., made a stop in Aspen. For veterans, it was a time to reflect, grieve, heal and pay respect to fallen brothers. “A lot of people came out to assist and help these other veterans, and I know how good it makes them feel because it makes me feel good,” Perigo said. “We need more of that – the level of patriotism in our community needs to grow. There needs to be more awareness of making a stronger country and thinking more about America.”

Glidden said The Wall helps veterans cope with feelings they’ve buried inside for years, and he encourages veterans of all wars to talk to one another, open up and get “out of the closet.” “You need to have friends and family and other vets to talk to,” he said. Now, a new generation of vets are trickling home. And while they’ll likely be greeted with respect instead of spit, they’ll still be returning to a environment where the majority of people consider their campaign in Iraq “a mistake.” Nark said isolation and other feelings that nobody but a fellow veteran could possibly understand may develop. But that’s where the network of local veterans comes into play. If the rest of the country hasn’t fully learned from the lessons of Vietnam, they have. “I’ll give them a hug and kiss and say ‘Thank you very much,'” Glidden said.Perigo said he and the other local Vietnam veterans will “absolutely” do anything and everything for those returning from Iraq, just like they have for one another. “We put that word out as often as we can,” he said. “In all of my dealings with vets over the years, what I have found in post-traumatic stress is that vets believe that they are alone,” Nark said. “And they’re not, and they need to know that.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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