View Full Version : Vietnam vets in Iraq see 'entirely different war'

06-21-05, 01:08 PM
Vietnam vets in Iraq see 'entirely different war'
By Steven Komarow, USA TODAY
Tue Jun 21, 7:19 AM ET

Before dawn, the pilots digest their intelligence briefing with coffee. The sun rises as they start preflight checks. Just after 7:30, they start rotors turning on their UH-60A Black Hawk, and ease it smoothly into the desert sky.

Chief Warrant Officers DeWayne Browning and Randy Weatherhead will take off and land a dozen times this hot day, ferrying infantry troops battling Iraq's insurgents in the Sunni Muslim heartland that Saddam Hussein calls home.

Only if those young troops look closely, past the jumble of struts and wires and into the obstructive flight helmets, will they notice something odd: Browning's gray, nearly white moustache and telltale furrows on Weatherhead's face.

Browning, 56, of Paradise, Calif., and Weatherhead, 57, of Elk Grove, Calif., are grandfathers. They first flew combat missions in Vietnam, before most of the soldiers in the current Army were born. They and others their age are here with the National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division, which includes some of the oldest soldiers to serve in combat for the modern U.S. Army. Few soldiers or officers in the military, other than the service's top generals, are as old.

If there are parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, these graying soldiers and the other Vietnam veterans serving here offer a unique perspective. They say they are more optimistic this time: They see a clearer mission than in Vietnam, a more supportive public back home and an Iraqi population that seems to be growing friendlier toward Americans.

"In Vietnam, I don't think the local population ever understood that we were just there to help them," says Chief Warrant Officer James Miles, 57, of Sioux Falls, S.D., who flew UH-1H Hueys in Vietnam from February 1969 to February 1970. And the Vietcong and North Vietnamese were a tougher, more tenacious enemy, he says. Instead of setting off bombs outside the base, they'd be inside.

"I knew we were going to lose Vietnam the day I walked off the plane," says Miles, who returned home this month after nearly a year in Iraq. Not this time. "There's no doubt in my mind that this was the right thing to do," he says.

The Army says it's impossible to know exactly how many Vietnam veterans are serving in Iraq, and there might be only a few dozen. Most of them came to Iraq last winter with the 42nd Infantry, a National Guard division headquartered in Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

Of the Vietnam veterans still in uniform, most are in the Guard. They once were the backbone of that part-time force, but today fewer than 20,000 remain in uniform from the Vietnam era, a definition that also includes many who never actually served in that theater, according to the National Guard Bureau. Of those, many are ineligible for service in Iraq, including those within two years of the mandatory retirement at age 60.

'No such thing as a POW'

The Vietnam vets here share their insights and experience with the younger troops. And they're learning some new tricks, too.

"I wish that I could take some of the things that I've learned (and) ... take them back in time to that 20-year-old kid flying in Vietnam," Browning says.

"There was a lot more action in Vietnam than there is here," says Chief Warrant Officer Herbert Dargue, 57, of Brookhaven, N.Y. But the danger in Iraq is higher for those who are shot down but survive. "There's no such thing as a POW," he says, referring to the terrorists' penchant for executing Westerners.

The enemy in Iraq has "absolutely no value" for life, Dargue says, who flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam from June 1968 to June 1969.

Miles says the biggest difference he saw was that, over time, Iraqi civilians grew more positive toward U.S. forces. He says he saw more people smiling and waving near his base here than there were 10 months ago when he arrived.

1st Sgt. Patrick Olechny, 52, of Marydel, Del., an attack helicopter crew chief and door gunner in Vietnam from March 1971 to February 1972, says the most important difference to him is the attitude of the American public.

"Vietnam was an entirely different war than this one," he says. The basic job of flying helicopters is the same, but the overall mission now is clear when it wasn't then. "We thought in Vietnam we were doing the right thing, and in the end it didn't seem that way," he says.

Now, "the people in the United States respect what the soldiers are doing," says Olechny, who still fills in at the door gunner position when he can get away from his administrative duties.

Browning, recently back from two weeks of R&R in the USA, says he was overwhelmed by the reception he got stateside: More than a hundred people met the airplane to help the soldiers and wish them well. "I can't tell you what, as a Vietnam vet, that means to me," he said.

Old guys in a new Army

For the Vietnam veterans, this is not a trip down memory lane, though there's the occasional reminder of old times.

The U.S. Army that took them to Vietnam was bigger, younger and virtually all male. The few women were mostly limited to medical or administrative jobs.

The draft gave the Army masses of ground troops. At its peak the Vietnam War had more than three times as many on the ground as the roughly 140,000 in Iraq today.

The new Army that these vets serve in is all volunteer. There are women in uniform all around, as pilots, MPs, mechanics and nearly all other jobs except for infantry and armor units.

Most of the pilots learned their craft in the Huey, the iconic helicopter of the Vietnam War. They now fly its successor, the UH-60 Black Hawk.

The Black Hawk, although much larger, is designed for similar missions, including transporting ground troops and providing medevac missions for wounded troops. Its design was based on lessons learned in Vietnam, Weatherhead says.

The two-engine Black Hawk is less prone to crashes than the old Hueys, and if it does go down it better protects passengers and crew.

Pilots also benefit from electronic assists, including GPS satellite guidance, for staying on course. However, Iraq's frequent dust storms penetrate sensitive parts, resulting in more maintenance headaches, Weatherhead says.

Flight planning is more thorough and time-consuming now. In Vietnam, helicopters were still relatively new to war. Flight procedures were less formal. A pilot would look at the assignment board in the morning and plan his mission almost on his own.

Now, it takes a team, and the Black Hawks always travel in pairs for safety.

These veterans generally applaud the changes, even if they say in some ways helicopter operations are more cumbersome with bureaucracy. And they especially welcome technology such as the Internet. In Vietnam, pen on paper through the U.S. mail was their main link to home.

But several of them quickly added that there is something they miss: the chance to blow off steam the way they used to at the end of the day. They may be eligible for AARP membership, but the Army still tells them they can't have a beer here.

Worries about offending political and cultural sensitivities have "gone overboard in my opinion," says Chief Warrant Officer Robert Frist, 54, of Auburn, N.Y., who was in the Army during the Vietnam era but wasn't sent there.

A vanishing breed

A good place to find the veterans in Iraq is in the helicopter units. There's far less opportunity to fly like that in civilian life, so the soldiers who love it stay on as long as they can. But even there, few remain.

"We're getting to be a rare breed," says Dargue, who flies corporate helicopters in civilian life and wishes he could fly more in Iraq and spend less time on his staff job at the 42nd Division headquarters in Tikrit. "I'm not crazy about sitting behind a desk."

While they're eager to fly, these pilots don't see themselves as trying to relive their sometimes wild and hard-charging youths.

"With 36 years of perspective, I look at this one a whole lot differently than I look at that one," says Weatherhead, whose daughter, Sgt. Jennifer Tommasi, 30, is on her second tour in Iraq as an Army medic. Compared to Vietnam, "this is probably more difficult. In the big picture, this is probably more important," he says.

"I'm more aware of the historical context here. I'm more aware of the political context," he says. "There, I was a 20-year-old flying helicopters and having a grand time."

"I'm not even sure I want to talk about some of the things we did then," Browning says. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing the crew of another helicopter that had been shot down by enemy fire that also soon forced his own Huey to land.

In Iraq, one of his proudest activities is volunteer work at a nearby children's home.

Iraq probably will be the last chance for these older veterans to mentor the younger ones on combat missions.

"Hopefully, we're role models for them and we do some mentorship," Browning says. What does he think of the younger pilots? "They're good, they're really good," he says.

Warrant Officer Jessica Howey, 29, of San Diego, who finished flight school in 2002, says she's learning every day from the older guys. Weatherhead is her instructor pilot and has schooled her on the changes made over the years. She sounds amazed at how the pilots then would dash to their aircraft and rush off to fight. "They just went." It was very different from the elaborate preflight planning of today. Now it takes hours, sometimes days, to prepare for a mission.

"They have a different mind-set," says Chief Warrant Officer James Dunn, 39, of Manassas, Va., probably because "they got shot at on every mission," something he says doesn't happen often in Iraq.

Chief Warrant Officer Ron Serafinowicz, 56, of Gilbert, Ariz., flew Hueys in Vietnam from June 1970 to June 1971. He says that being shot at, and seeing the results of weapons on others, changes a soldier's attitude. "Us old guys, we've seen that before," he says. "It's not an adventure to us like it was when we were young."

The last cattle drive

Col. Larry Wilson, a flight surgeon, says he's on the watch for hypertension, cardiac disease and other maladies of age that would ground the older vets. Mostly they're "a pretty healthy bunch" whose problems rarely exceed "telling dirty old men stories," he says. He also says the Vietnam veterans in Iraq have a good impact on the younger soldiers.

Weatherhead and Browning didn't know each other in Vietnam but have flown together for 20 years in the California National Guard since then. In Iraq, their careers have come full circle and their cockpit banter sometimes drifts into warm nostalgia.

On the aircraft intercom, the two men remain perfectionists, taking turns at the controls and discussing their own flying technique. They note improvements in technique that could be made by the other Black Hawk, piloted by one of the younger crews.

Weatherhead and Browning liken this deployment to the last cattle drive of a couple of cowboys. They call each other Gus and Woodrow, from Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the retired Texas Rangers who lead a cattle drive in Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning Western novel. They talk about baking biscuits and the annoyances of getting older.

"Gus, this is hard on the old butt," Browning says.

"Yeah, my tailbone is killing me right now," Weatherhead says.

On this day, there are a couple of reminders of Vietnam. One of the Iraqi marshlands near the Tigris River looks a lot like the Mekong Delta, Weatherhead says. They watch as the other helicopter swoops slowly over a village to drop candy and toys for the kids, as they once did in Vietnam.

"Well, Augustus," Browning says. "It's a good day to be flying."