Clinton Vietnam trip stirs debate among U.S. vets
By Randall Mikkelsen/Reuters
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Clinton's plans to visit Vietnam next week have stirred controversy among U.S. veterans who fought there in a war the president opposed and avoided as a young man.
Some veterans interviewed by Reuters said Clinton's trip could help heal lingering wounds from the war, which killed more than 58,000 Americans and 1.5 million Vietnamese and devastated Vietnam's landscape and economy.
Others said they are offended by Clinton's draft avoidance and how his administration manages the military, and that he cannot adequately represent those who fought there.
The United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 but the war didn't end until 1975, when the communist north defeated South Vietnam.
"I'm all for having relations back with Vietnam (but) to me, he's probably the last person that should be doing this," said Army combat veteran Steve White, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. White fought in Vietnam in 1968-1969.
Said Manuel Cabrero, of New York: "I support his going on behalf of the country and bringing another message of peace and reconciliation to Vietnam. I think that's what each of us has had to do personally." Cabrero was an Army infantry soldier who was wounded in Vietnam in 1970.
Clinton is to travel to Vietnam next Friday through Sunday. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hanoi, and the first to visit Vietnam since Richard Nixon in 1969.
Clinton has been progressively easing the pressure on Vietnam. He lifted the U.S. trade embargo on Hanoi in 1994, restored diplomatic relations the next year and reopened the U.S. embassy in Hanoi in 1996.
The White House says Clinton will encourage Vietnam to further liberalize its economy and open its political process. He will also highlight lingering war issues, such as the fate of 2,000 U.S. soldiers still listed as missing in action and the land mines that continue to kill and maim in Vietnam.
"THINGS TO APOLOGIZE FOR"
George Duggins, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he supported Clinton's trip as a high-level opportunity to press the case for an accounting of those missing in action. "I know the president has a lot of baggage, but if he helps bring solace to some families then it's well worth his making the trip," Duggins said.
The visit could help fulfill the ostensible aim of the war in Vietnam, said Lon Weston, of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. "The whole object was to bring them into the capitalist world, and this is part of the process," he said.
Cabrero said news of Clinton's trip stirred his unresolved feelings about the war. It led him to begin a search to return a letter he had removed from a dying North Vietnamese soldier.
"I hope that he takes a piece of me and brings back something from there that says it's going toward normalcy, we have a relationship. We have things to apologize for to those people," he said.
Providing U.S. help for disabled Vietnamese veterans who fought the United States would be an appropriate gesture, he said.
"I wish I could go there personally to touch the land and talk to the people," he said. "I left a piece of me there. I left my blood. ... I left my boyhood."
Cabrero now serves as a lay chaplain of the state chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization representing wounded veterans. He said he is proud to have served, but that he now believes the war was a mistake and he does not resent those who had "ill feelings" about it.
SEETHING AT CLINTON
But some veterans are seething.
Clinton, whose term ends in January, was an active opponent of the war. He escaped military service by declaring his intention to enroll in a college officer training program. He later dropped the idea and made himself eligible for the draft in 1969 under a new lottery system. He received a high number and was not called to serve.
"For him to do this (trip) at the last minute is sort of an insult to all of us," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Ed Cathcart of Altamonte Springs, Florida.
He said he would have no objection to the next president going, but that he would rather that Clinton go after he leaves office.
White, who founded a business network for Vietnam veterans, said he and other vets he has spoken with are also disturbed by Clinton's administration of the military.
This includes a U.S. mission in Somalia, where 18 Army Rangers and Delta Force troops were killed in a 1993 firefight, air strikes against Iraq and suspected terrorist targets during his impeachment scandal, and what White said was a military decline during much of Clinton's presidency.
"He didn't serve. Under his administration the military
certainly is not at the level that it was before he came in, and it seems as if he's used it in the past to take some of the heat off his own actions," White said.
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