Vietnam vet sees what Bush doesn't: lookalike wars

April 15, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

THERE ARE 125 million people over the age of 40 in this country, and if they turn on the 11 o'clock news and watch the fighting in Baghdad and the helicopters circling Fallujah and don't see Vietnam, then we have the worst case of collective amnesia in the history of mankind.

U.S. troops fighting a guerrilla war in a far-off land, Americans divided on whether they should be there at all, presidents and generals smiling and telling us everything's going great while the body-count goes up, nobody in the White House or the Pentagon with a clue about how to get the hell out - this doesn't sound vaguely familiar?

But the president says no.

The president goes on national TV and stands before the press and starts shaking his head before the question even leaves the lips of the reporters.

Nope, says the president, Vietnam and Iraq is a false analogy.

So yesterday I picked up the phone and called an old friend of mine, John Rumsey, who knows more about Vietnam than George Bush does, and more about war first-hand than Bush will ever know, too.

"Bush says Iraq is no Vietnam," I said.

"It feels like Vietnam to me," Rumsey said.

John Rumsey went off to fight in Vietnam in January 1970. He was 18 and had graduated seven months earlier from Monroe-Woodbury High School in southern New York state, where he was a big-shot athlete.

We played varsity football, basketball and baseball together, but John was way better than me, the kind of selfless, dedicated player coaches loved. We became good friends and talked about everything: girls, college, what kind of a life we would have down the road, if only we knew where that road led.

But after high school, with the draft closing in on him, John joined the Marines. He went away and the next thing I knew, he was in a Naval hospital in Queens, N.Y., all shot up. He stayed there for 13 months.

In Vietnam, he was a grunt with Mike Co. 3/7, 1st Marine Division, going out on patrols and setting ambushes near a village in the Que Son Valley, southwest of Da Nang.

Five months after arriving, he was wounded by a Viet Cong mortar. They patched him up and sent him back to fight some more. Six months later, the war ended for John Rumsey in a terrible explosion of noise and flashing light and blood.

"We were in the village that day and a kid came running up to us," Rumsey said. "He was frantic, and he told us the Viet Cong were stealing his water buffalo. This was a poor village. And a water buffalo was the most valuable thing a family had."

Rumsey and another Marine and three young South Vietnamese soldiers grabbed their weapons and raced out to confront the enemy. They walked into a Viet Cong ambush.

A grenade exploded near Rumsey's feet. Searing shrapnel tore into his body from his head to his toes.

As he was being carried in a poncho to a waiting MedEvac helicopter, he was shot twice, in the shoulder and the leg.

For this, they gave John Rumsey a couple of Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. They sent him home swathed in bandages. Lying there in the hospital, he had plenty of time to wonder if the war had been worth all the blood he left behind.

Now there is another war, this one in Iraq, where young soldiers are dying and lots of people in this country wonder again: Is it worth it?

At the beginning of the war, John Rumsey, like many other Americans, felt it was.

Saddam Hussein was a monster, everyone knew that. And Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell talked about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"They were so convincing," Rumsey said from the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he lives and runs an optometry franchise.

But when the WMDs failed to turn up, as did the links to al-Qaida, John Rumsey, as Marine as you can get, began to question the war.

And with a bloody insurgency sweeping key parts of Iraq and more U.S. troops dying in guerrilla strikes, his concern about the war has been ratcheted up considerably.

"Now I'm apprehensive about what's going on and the amount of American lives being lost," said Rumsey. "It's senseless ... what the hell are we doing there?"

John Rumsey isn't the first Vietnam vet to hear the echoes of his own horrible little war in the sands of Iraq. John Kerry, a hero of that war and Democratic candidate for president, hears the echoes, too.

But this president, George Bush, doesn't want to hear about Vietnam.

Let's hope that doesn't prove to be a huge mistake.

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