Gilchrest, Kerry grasp war in ways that Bush never can

April 23, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NOW THE Republicans throw slanderous new questions at John Kerry's Vietnam record, and for Wayne Gilchrest it must feel like one more shot in the chest. Gilchrest and Kerry were in combat when George W. Bush was in hiding. The two of them, the Democrat Kerry and the Republican Gilchrest, understand war in ways that this president only pretends to know. Yet the White House again visits Vietnam, and shame on them.

Shame on them, first, for their stupidity. Just when they had bluffed their way past the president's empty war record, they bring back Vietnam by questioning Kerry's. All Kerry did was win the Silver Star for "gallantry in action," a Bronze Star for heroic achievement and three Purple Hearts. All Bush did was slip through the war on a pass.

And shame on their arrogance for trying to cheapen a combat record like Kerry's. Particularly this White House, where we have Bush, who leapfrogged over National Guard candidates who didn't have his political connections, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who had five draft deferments because, as he put it, "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service." But neither has a problem sending other young men off to fight, and their mouthpieces have no problem questioning the "seriousness" of the first of Kerry's three war wounds.

Which brings us to Gilchrest, the Republican congressman from Maryland's Eastern Shore, and to the newest American combat. This is a tough time for Gilchrest. Republicans are supposed to close ranks over Iraq, and Gilchrest understands this.

"We're there," he said this week from his Washington office. "I don't ask any more if we should be there, because we're there, and that's what we have to deal with."

But he goes home to the Eastern Shore, and a half-dozen times now he goes to funerals of those killed in Iraq. And he goes to town meetings, and the local barbershop and grocery store, and in this section of the state where people voted overwhelmingly for Bush, the talk about this war in Iraq is increasingly anxious and sometimes angry.

"It goes from total support to totally opposed," Gilchrest said. "We have very, very angry people who didn't want us to go into Iraq, who didn't believe there were weapons of mass destruction there. And we have those who stand by Bush's decision.

"But the bulk of people have this palpable sense of apprehension. They need their government to be competent and smart, so we can deal with the international community. We can't do this alone."

This, as the Spanish and the Poles talk of pulling out of Iraq, and America still sends the vast percentage of kids to do the fighting and dying. This, as the revelations continue to pile up - from Bob Woodward's new book, and from Richard Clarke's, and from Paul O'Neill - that this administration took the blow from Osama bin Laden and used it to justify an invasion of Iraq, and based it on evidence that was flimsy or misguided or fraudulent, and on ego that said America is strong enough to handle anything.

And this, as the comparisons mount with Vietnam - not only because of the increasing military confusion, but the confusion in Washington.

And the bodies just beginning to come home.

On Wednesday, Gilchrest had breakfast with John Weed. He is a former medical corpsman who served in Vietnam. May 14 will be 37 years since the two men were bogged down in heavy fire southwest of Danang, near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Weed was in Washington this week for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery - and to recall, with Gilchrest, their own miserable war, when Gilchrest took a shot through his chest from an AK-47 and Weed helped keep him alive.

"Oh, it was like getting hit by a truck," Gilchrest was saying now. The recollection came reluctantly. "The first thing was, I saw myself lying on the ground. I was at treetop level, looking down and seeing myself on the ground. And I woke up, and I couldn't breathe.

"And I remembered being 8 or 9 years old, and my older brother swung a bat and hit me in the stomach when we were kids. And he said, `Relax and breathe through your nose.' So that's what came to me when I got conscious. I took shallow breaths.

"And a bunch of Marines carried me in a poncho back to some other guys who'd been wounded. The fighting was still going on. It took two or three hours for the helicopters to arrive, because of the fighting. And I just lay there, thinking about the pain, hearing the fighting going on, and feeling the blood drip down my back."

He paused then, and said, quite softly, "And these kids are going through the same thing today."

So we're there, and we're told not to question it. This president says criticism undermines the war effort. He implies it is unpatriotic. This is another lesson he somehow missed from all the years of Vietnam.

This White House believes it is better to question the Purple Hearts of John Kerry, who went to war and got shot three times. They believe it is better for those such as Gilchrest to deal with the latest bloody news, calm anxious constituents and mourn the dead when they come home to the Eastern Shore.

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