The deaths in Iraq of about 20 Marines from Ohio points out an important difference between the way we are fighting the Iraq war and the way we fought the Vietnam war. Troops are sent to Iraq in cohesive units, like the one from Ohio. In Vietnam, they were sent pretty much individually, probably due to the draft, but perhaps due to some political considerations.

I enlisted when I came up 1-A to try to maintain some control over my destiny. However, I was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where very few of my colleagues from Alabama were sent. Then, after going through basic training, I was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and given further training there with no one from my basic training unit. Then only three of us who had trained together at Fort Sill were sent to Vietnam together, and although we were sent to the same artillery battalion, we were sent to different batteries, and so never saw each other after the first few days. As individual soldiers reached the end of their tour, they were replaced individually, so that the unit in Vietnam was in constant flux, a few old hands and a few new ones.

Of course this created problems for unit cohesiveness in Vietnam, but I think that one of the worst problems was coming home, because there was no support. Most of your buddies were still back in Vietnam, and the ones who had left before you were back home wherever they lived, some in New York, some in California, etc. After several years, I did see one of my old battery mates in the Washington, DC, area, where we both had moved by coincidence. I think this lack of support had a lot to do with the feeling of alienation when troops came back singly. The country rejected them as war criminals, and they didn’t have anywhere to turn for support. The guys who might have supported them were halfway across the country. And the veterans who were nearby did not have the same shared experiences as the guys who had served in Vietnam with you.

I think the current system of maintaining the integrity of entire units is better. But when you have a unit suffer significant casualties, as the Marines from Ohio did, then it is tougher. But even then there is a shared support system for the families of the dead, because other families live nearby.

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