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Vets Are Saying Its Not Like Vietnam At All.

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Posted 27 October 2004 - 08:43 PM

Life in Iraq Beats Vietnam, Veterans Say

Guardsmen who have served in both wars point to today's better amenities and morale. There are also fewer unsavory indulgences.

By Monte Morin, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Before Staff Sgt. Carlys Peters flew home from his first war more than 30 years ago, the Army gave him some advice: Don't wear your uniform in public.

"Coming back from Vietnam, people considered us drug addicts, alcoholics, rapists, murderers," Peters said. "At LAX, they were shouting and spitting on us…. After that, I didn't tell people I was in Vietnam."

Now, at the age of 52, the California National Guardsman finds himself in Baghdad, midway through his second war. This time around, though, Peters said he was received very differently when he returned home to California on leave a few months ago. "People said hi to me and waved. It's nice to have people welcome you back. I'll say that much."

For Vietnam veterans like him, the Iraq war has been more a study of contrasts than an episode of deja vu. Whether it's the terrain, the technology, the food or the enemy's skill, there's little that's similar between the two, they say. Maybe the only thing that hasn't changed is Peters' fatalism.

"I'm not as nervous as these younger guys are," he said. "My philosophy is, if anything happens, it's gonna happen. Like we said in Vietnam, 'It ain't nothing but a thing.' "

About 40,000 of the U.S. troops in Iraq are from the National Guard, a force whose members are older on average than regular Army troops and more likely to include Vietnam veterans. According to Pentagon statistics, only 6% of regular Army troops are older than 40, compared with 22% of Guard members. Military spokesmen in Iraq said they had no statistics on how many Vietnam vets were serving there.

Peters is one of two Vietnam veterans assigned to the Riverside-based Bravo Company of the 1-160th Infantry Regiment, a group of 97 men known as "Maddogs." The company's first sergeant, Paul Balboa, 57, served four combat tours in Southeast Asia as well and spent much of that time with the Special Forces.

Attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, the Maddogs provide armed escorts for U.S. Embassy personnel, Iraqi officials and truck convoys. They ride Iraq's most dangerous roads on a regular basis and have encountered their share of roadside bombs and mortar attacks, rocket-propelled-grenade ambushes and small-arms fire. But after more than five months in Iraq, the Maddogs have yet to suffer a fatality.

Balboa, a Moreno Valley resident, said that in Iraq, the enemy is far less skillful than in Vietnam. However, the insurgents are learning from their mistakes.

"Their attacks are well planned but poorly executed, and they're not very good shots," he said. "But they're getting better and better. Here and there, they're acquiring one or two really good ones."

Balboa worked for Pacific Bell more than 30 years, retiring a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to work full time in the Guard. The patriotism that inspired him and many others in the company to volunteer has resulted in high morale, he said — another contrast with the Vietnam War.

"People were in Vietnam because they had to be. They were drafted," said Balboa, who volunteered for the military. "Nowadays, we're here because we want to be here. Whether it's because they want to do their duty or they're looking for adventure."

The Maddogs are quartered in an underground parking garage that reportedly housed a fleet of cars plundered from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusai. Unlike the field tents that Peters and Balboa used in Vietnam, the platoon bays in Iraq are loaded with modern conveniences — televisions, DVD players, videogames, leather couches and seats, refrigerators, stereos and Internet connections.

Instead of the leftover World War II C-rations and stringy water buffalo that soldiers often ate in Vietnam, GIs in Iraq enjoy hot meals in air-conditioned dining facilities. The Maddogs' chow hall offers a weekly Surf and Turf night, with steak and lobster tails.

And although Peters and Balboa would wait months for mail to find them in Vietnam and were rarely afforded the chance to call home, troops in Iraq are in constant contact with their families.

"It's a little bit too much, but it's good for the soldiers because they're not dwelling on things," Balboa said. "Also, if there is a problem at home, you can take care of it right away."

After a day of riding shotgun with truck convoys, Bravo Company soldiers are likely to unwind by popping a movie into a DVD player or playing videogames — more wholesome forms of release than those relied upon in Vietnam. In that war, beer was sometimes brought to troops in the bush by helicopter. But Iraq has been declared a no-booze zone, and troops face harsh punishment if caught drinking.

"Back then, every base had a sin city," Balboa said. "Drinking, smoking and womanizing was the way we were then. Now, that's unheard of."

Many members of Bravo are decades younger than Peters and Balboa, and Peters endures constant ribbing about his age. Soldiers ask him to describe famous Civil War battles and call him Grandpa. Behind all the joking, however, is a deep respect, soldiers say.

"I look up to him," said Spc. Brandon Doyel, 22, of Palm Springs. "I don't tell him that, because I don't want to pump him up too much, but I take what he says to heart.

"When I first saw him, I said, 'Who is this old bastard?' But then I saw his combat patches and realized he'd been through a lot."

Peters is scheduled to return home, along with Balboa and the rest of the Maddogs, in about six months. His stint in Iraq has been very different from his service in Vietnam, but he hopes one thing ends up the same — that he makes it back without a Purple Heart.

"I made it through Vietnam without a scratch," he said, "and I'm going to make it through this without a scratch."


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