Campaign 2004 is ripping open Vietnam War wounds this nation spent the last 30 years trying to heal.
As the race narrows down between a President unwilling to fight in a war — but more than willing to send others to fight and die — and a Vietnam veteran who came home to renounce his service and protest the conflict, a bitter divide opens between supporters of either George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.
On the surface, the choice for veterans seems easy: Bush pulled strings to get into the Texas Air Guard and avoid going to Vietnam. Kerry went to Vietnam and returned a decorated veteran.
But Kerry’s opposition to the war and grandstanding by tossing his medals over a fence (medals that, it turned out, weren’t his) and questions about whether or not his actions violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) doesn’t sit well with many vets.
“Hell, there ain’t a choice,” says Ron Levins, who spent three tours in Vietnam. “We got a coward who hid out in the Guard and a vet who dishonored the uniform by teaming up with Jane Fonda when he came back to the World.”
Both candidates have only themselves to blame for reopening the old wounds of Vietnam. Bush hemmed and hawed when it came to answering questions about gaps in his Guard service and Kerry now touts his Vietnam service as a political asset.
This is not the same John Kerry who returned from Vietnam to denounce the war and lead the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement. He turned in medals and told Congress horror stories about atrocities that he didn’t witness but claimed others described to him.
Now his medals sit in a display case in his Senate office in Washington and images of his war service appear in campaign ads.
Such hypocrisy does not sit well with some vets.
“He didn’t want anything to do with the war when he came home,” says vet Mike Reyes. “Now, when he can use it for political gain, he embraces the war. That’s not right.”
Vets who support Kerry say at least he served and did not use family connections to jump ahead of others on the Guard waiting list as Bush did. They point to lingering questions about Bush’s attendance (or lack of attendance) at Guard meetings while serving in Alabama.
Those who support Bush say such questions are just a smokescreen and point to Kerry’s antiwar activities and raise questions about whether or not he protested the war while still on active or reserve duty (actions which would violate the UCMJ).
Neither Bush nor Kerry have been open about such questions and that only fuels the debate.
Underneath these questions, however, lies the still-festering American sensitivity to the Vietnam War, a war where thousands died for questionable causes, a war that left wounds that just will not heal.
After 30 years, Vietnam should not still be a campaign issue.
But it is. And electing George W. Bush or John F. Kerry in November will not settle the issue or heal the wounds.