Richard Reeves

The Day of the Veterans

EL MONTE, Calif. -- "Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Day" read the banner hoisted up in front of City Hall on Tuesday. It was, of course, 31 years late.

Fifteen other California cities and towns, including Los Angeles, declared Jan. 27 -- the 31st anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords that brought American soldiers home -- as a "Welcome Home" day.

It was also the day that a Vietnam vet named John Kerry, surrounded by other veterans of that long and lost war, easily won the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.

The organizer of the El Monte event, Jose Ramos, who served in the Army in 1967 and '68, broke into tears when he saw the sign. "I came back at 20 with the heart, spirit and mind of a 50-year-old. I had seen too much," Ramos told the crowd of 100 or so people. He was followed by Michael Felix, who went to college after coming back and remembered: "I constantly heard about how stupid we were and how we had been used by the government. ... Although I'm not sure I'll ever get over the treatment I received, I guess it's time to try."

What a terrible war! But perhaps that is redundant. The grunts in El Monte talked like the guys in Hanoi do in "Sorrow of War," the great autobiographical novel by a North Vietnam vet, Bao Ninh.

On both sides, it turned out, nobody wanted to welcome or even talk to the veterans. Many of those aged 20-year-olds tried to hide their service. In 1988, walking by the door of the Vietnam vets' caucus at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, I heard a familiar voice. It was Grey Davis, then a California legislator. I had known him for 10 years and did not know he served in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant.

Times change. Senator Kerry, an extraordinarily brave man under fire (three Purple Hearts) as a Navy lieutenant commanding small river patrol boats in those days, would almost certainly not be the Democratic front-runner if it were not for that service, dedication and courage. The same is true of Gen. Wesley Clark, first in his class at West Point, who won a Purple Heart in Vietnam.

Suddenly we, or at least Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, are proud and deeply impressed by these men. Part of that is new respect, particularly for Kerry, who went from Yale to war at a time when other young men of education and ambition used those gifts to avoid Vietnam. Those who managed to escape service, we know now, included Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney.

They who did not serve are something of an anomaly in American history. Most American presidents did serve, many of them as generals, beginning with George Washington. After the Civil War, the presidency was practically denied to all but Union officers, beginning with Ulysses S. Grant. Theodore Roosevelt, who knew power gravitated to warriors, but who also had serious medical problems, had to form his own little army, the Rough Riders, to win his military spurs in the Spanish-American War.

Something like that was also true of John F. Kennedy, a naval hero in World War II. JFK could never have passed a physical examination, so he used his father's influence to become a lieutenant with nothing but a doctor's certificate.

Usually men use letters from doctors to avoid military service, but Kennedy, with his array of dangerous ailments, wanted in -- because he reckoned correctly that if you did not participate in the great event of your generation, you were not going to be part of the postwar action. And Kennedy wanted action. After his service, he ran for Congress in 1946 as a veterans' candidate, operating out of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post named for his brother Joe, killed in action over the English Channel. His slogan was "The New Generation Offers a Leader."

The rest is history. Kennedy succeeded President Eisenhower, the great commander, and was followed by five naval officers: Lt. Cmdr. Lyndon Johnson, who served about a week, Lt. Richard Nixon, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Ford, Lt. Jimmy Carter, and then after Reagan, George H.W. Bush, the youngest lieutenant in the Navy during World War II.

That's the history Lieutenant Kerry is hoping will repeat itself.

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