August 2005

Pittsburghers Discuss Iraq and Vietnam
Opinions Vary Widely Among Local Boomers
by John Fries

Even though it doesn't seem like all that long ago, it's been some 30 years since the end of the Vietnam conflict.

During the 1960's and early 70's, updates on Vietnam were a staple of the daily and evening news. Each night on TV, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and others showed us images and film that took us to the front lines, and maps that showed us how to get there. Each day in the papers and each week in the newsmagazines, we saw the same images. We also read words filed by countless war correspondents.

Along with the news, we got a helping of public opinion. Unlike previous conflicts, during which we were all Americans - one for all and all for one - this one created different sentiments. People were either for the conflict or against it. There were supporters and protestors, each side with firm convictions and beliefs.

Today, our nation is going through a similar experience with the war in Iraq. Now the information is instantaneous, as embedded reporters on battlefields describe the action firsthand in real time, while cable television networks and their web sites show us what's happening as it happens.

Three decades after Vietnam, we once again live in a nation that is sharply divided about the war. Here in Pittsburgh, boomers have a wide range of opinions about today's conflict in Iraq and yesterday's conflict in Vietnam. Several agreed to share their thoughts.

Jerry Wienand, 58, of Marshall Township, North Hills, is a partner in a small downtown law practice. He's also a military veteran who enlisted in the U.S. Navy (working in cryptology) for four years, then spent 23 years in the Navy Reserve (eight enlisted, 15 as an officer) before retiring as a Commander.

Regarding Vietnam, he believes that "we went about it as a political war instead of fighting it as a military war. Decisions were made for political, not military, reasons and the end result of hamstringing our military is that we could, and did not, win."

He believes that the Iraq conflict has been handled correctly.

"So far, we've gone about it the right way," he says. "We decided to invade Iraq based on information that turned out to be incorrect, although the previous administration and many others in government believed, as did the Bush administration, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Wienand notes that Iraq is now better off thanks to U.S. involvement -- in terms of the personal freedom of the population, the number of children going to school, the number of properly equipped hospitals that are up and running, the number of libraries open and more.

"Also," he adds, "in spite of the number of people being killed and maimed by insurgents, fewer people are dying there now than did under Saddam Hussein's regime. So long as we let the military make military decisions and the State Department make the political decisions, and we train the Iraqis as we have done, we should be able to begin a phased pullout sometime next year."

Chip Kelsch, 50, of Reserve Township, a graphic designer at a commercial printing company, recalls Vietnam from his high school days.

"I signed up for the draft in 1971. I didn't get selected, but if I had been called up I would have served. "In 1972," he adds, I was in high school, so I know all about Vietnam. I lived through it. The goal was to stop communism from spreading, but the communist party infiltrated college campuses and the mainstream media, which brainwashed the American people with their pro-communism, liberal propaganda into believing that the Vietnam conflict was bad and that the USA was evil."

According to Kelsch, some things never change. "I don't want to get off on a rant here, but some of these same people are still around today protesting the Iraq War. Today's anti-war movement is fueled by the American Workers Party; in other words, the Communist Party in America! If you don't believe me, look it up on the Internet. See where these activists and anti-war groups are getting their funding.

"I support the leadership of President Bush, Condoleeza Rice and Secretary Rumsfeld, and I thank God that we have a president like George W. Bush who sees terrorism for what it is, and has what it takes to deal with terrorists," says Kelsch.

"Ask any service man or woman returning from Iraq, and he or she will tell you of all the good things that are happening in Iraq. Iraqi women finally have the chance to go to school, Iraqi businessmen are opening shops, and the Iraqi people are drafting a constitution. "Unfortunately, because of their hatred for our president, many in the media are not telling of the good things happening in Iraq."

Cathy Sterling of Shadyside sees things from a decidedly different perspective. The 44-year-old, who works as a pet sitter, believes there were ulterior motives for US involvement in Vietnam.

"We sent our troops to die to protect offshore oil interests there," says Sterling. "The average age of the Vietnam soldier was 19 years old. So many wrecked lives. And for what?"

She recalls watching Dan Rather and the war on television when she was a child, and even remembers sending a box of goods over to the soldiers at Christmastime. But, she calls Vietnam "a sad chapter in US history, including how we treated the vets after it was over."

Sterling has similar feelings about Iraq. "We got into this war on false pretenses," she says. "Unfortunately, there are tyrants and dictators on several areas of the world, but we don't care about them. There's oil here. Again, we are here to protect our oil interests."

She adds that, "unlike Vietnam, you'd never know that we are in war now - you rarely see body bags on the news. President Bush wanted us in Iraq before he ever got into office and he used 9/11 as an excuse to send our troops. It's immoral and he should be impeached."

As a communications professional in the transportation industry, Cecilia Walkney Henke, 42, works regularly with governmental agencies. The Regent Square/Wilkinsburg native views Vietnam as an opportunity for the US to help another nation in need.

"The United States was involved in the Vietnam conflict because we promised to help South Vietnam defend its independence," she says. "Preserving that independence was to our benefit as well, and it strengthened the world order. Had we not helped South Vietnam, the result could have been an increase in the breadth of unrest and a widening of the war's battlefield."

She also agrees with the president's decision to take action in Iraq. "We are a more secure nation - in fact, the world is a more secure place - with Saddam Hussein and members of his regime out of power. The horror that was commonplace under his long dictatorship, even to his own citizens, boggles my mind."

She mentions Saddam's refusal to comply with UN sanctions and the terrorism he created as two of the many reasons she supports US intervention. She also calls attention to the fact that our soldiers are fighting the enemy on their soil, not ours.

"They are these preserving our freedom and liberating the Iraqi people," she says. "I am proud of the Americans defending freedom in Iraq, and I am proud to be a citizen of a country that takes a stand, doing what needs to be done - even if it is unpopular - because it is the necessary and right thing to be done."

Ronald Roblaski, 53, of Ingomar/Franklin Park, is a nurse anthesthetist and businessman who views both conflicts in terms of the human involvement.

Though he didn't serve in the military, he possesses a great deal of compassion for those who do, and has been very active in supporting them. In fact, during Operation Desert Storm, he founded an organization called Comrades in Arms, whose purpose was to generate interest and support for the American troops serving in the Persian Gulf.

"My military experience," says Roblaski, "is as a committed supporter of any person serving in the armed forces of our country. I became interested when one of my employees was elevated from reserve status to active duty. He, as well as countless others with similar circumstances, was poised to lose everything. I kept him on his full salary as I was able, and committed to do something tangible to help him and others of like circumstances."

Roblaski's current views on Vietnam have been shaped over many years. "My daughter studied Vietnam while in college, and I read her textbooks on the subject. I was always an avid supporter of our troops, and against the war. After studying the facts about this conflict and the misinformation that kept it going, my disdain for those in high political office peaked. Bottom line: it was a mistake, and those who fought and served have a high place in my heart and mind."

He views the Iraq situation in a similar way. "Our heroic Comrades in Arms serving our country are enduring tremendous suffering both at home and in Iraq. There is a 70 percent rate of divorce, and economic duress are exacting high tolls among our heroic men and women." He adds that "we are embroiled in a conflict in which a foe will not come to the battle front, but fight from the pits of despair."

Given the current climate, Roblaski plans to re-introduce Comrades in Arms, the organization. "I continue to support and love our troops, and will bring my support group back from the closet," he says.

He speaks of the importance of public communication with elected officials.

"I believe we must petition them and, more importantly, find and elect officials whose priorities are focused on recognition and obedience to the truth. We must raise the standard of one nation under God and fight the true battles that rage from the forces that are at the base of most conflicts -- men's egos and the quest for power, or the illusion of same. We must always strive to obey the Golden Rule and the commandments, and resist the pull that money exerts."

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