This war’s different, say older veterans

By Susanna Ray

Herald Writer

Barry Sehlin, who served 2 1/2tours of duty as a pilot in the Vietnam War, says he sees distinct differences between his experiences as a solider and the current conflict in Afghanistan.

"In that war, the Vietnam War … the political leadership was never, from beginning to end, able to clearly characterize our purpose in being there," said Sehlin, a Republican state representative from Oak Harbor.

"This time, of course, we have an enemy that has issued a death sentence for every American simply because we are Americans, and has attacked America. So it’s very easy to understand why we’re there."

With Veterans Day upon us, veterans of America’s past wars are drawing on their own combat memories, comparing and contrasting what they went through with today’s mobilization.

While reactions to the current conflict are still taking shape, veterans are focusing on being supportive of veterans-in-the-making, said Rick Houlberg, a Vietnam veteran who works with the San Francisco veterans’ advocacy group Swords to Plowshares.

Combat is a unique experience, he said, and only veterans can truly understand the problems such as substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder that await many of today’s active-duty military personnel.

"Nobody ever wins a war," Houlberg said. "It’s just a matter of who is damaged least."

Al Fox of Lake Stevens was in high school at the time Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, and joined the Navy as a patriotic response. He. He ended up serving from 1943 to 1964, retiring as a lieutenant commander just as the Vietnam War was escalating.

He was against the wars in Vietnam and Korea, which he called "politicians’ wars," but he’s fully behind the current airstrikes against Afghanistan.

"War is terrible," Fox said. "But I look at this as a police action. I just hope we don’t get masses of ground troops in there, because we’ll get ground up into meat if we do."

But his opinion is changing as the conflict changes.

"It’s going to be a learning experience for us," he said. "We’ve never faced anything like this before."

During his service in Vietnam, Sehlin flew a single-seat attack bomber, the A-1 Skyraider, and then switched to the more modern A-7 Corsair II on bombing runs from aircraft carriers into the heart of industrial North Vietnam.

From a pilot’s perspective, he said, the defense capabilities the United States faced then were much greater than now. The Vietnamese fighters were using big anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles to down U.S. jets, he said, recalling one air wing he served in that lost 29 of its 90 pilots in one six-month period.

He’s not in the know now, since he’s retired, but he said he doesn’t have the impression that the Taliban fighters have the same resources.

"Of course, the North Vietnamese were being constantly supplied by the Soviet Union," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Susanna Ray at 425-339-3439

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