New York Times
May 3, 2004
Views Of Iraq Through 'Vietnam Eyes'
By Kirk Johnson
SALT LAKE CITY, May 2 — Edie McCoy-Meeks arrived in Pleiku, Vietnam, in July
1968, at age 23 and worked as a nurse at the 71st Evacuation Hospital near the
Cambodian border. She later returned home to a career as an operating room nurse and
for the most part, she said, shut the door of memory about what she saw and felt in her
year of combat medicine.
But America's journey into Iraq over the past year, she said, has broken down that door.
"I thought was I doing O.K., then this war came up and I can't stop crying, and I can't
listen to the news," said Ms. McCoy-Meeks, now a surgical consultant in Beacon, N.Y.
"For a lot of us, this is flashback time."
The war in Vietnam has charged back into the American consciousness, as the fighting in
Iraq has continued and election-year questions have been raised about how President
Bush and Senator John Kerry handled the challenges of the Vietnam era as young men.
But for 51 veterans from around the nation, including Ms. McCoy-Meeks, who gathered
in Utah this weekend for the first reunion of their unit, known as the 71st Evac, Vietnam
never entirely went away. Every member of the unit witnessed war's worst. Many say
they are different people today because of Pleiku.
"I look at things through Vietnam eyes," said Dr. Bob Lindberg, who was an orthopedic
surgeon in the 71st Evac from 1969 to early 1970 and is now in private practice in Sun
So has Iraq become another Vietnam? Through two days of bring-your-own-wine
receptions and lingering breakfasts in the downtown hotel here where the veterans had
gathered, the answer was rarely a simple yes or no. For every 10 similarities, these
veterans said, there are 10 subtle ways that Iraq seems different. Still, every answer was
rooted in something that most Americans lack: intimate, vivid knowledge, much of it still
raw despite the years, of the Vietnam War experience.
Iraq is charged with religion, some said, while Vietnam was more about the politics of
nationalism. Some said the lack of an exit strategy from Iraq made Vietnam a parallel,
while others argued that global terrorism had changed everything and comparisons with
the 1960's were not possible.
Some veterans said their own views had evolved over the decades. Scotty McNutt, now
an international business consultant in Austin, Tex., was an operating room technician at
Pleiku from 1969 to 1970 who came home from the war a protester. Mr. McNutt said he
went to the same rally in Washington in 1971 where a young Mr. Kerry — then just back
from the war as well — threw his war decorations away. Mr. McNutt said he did the
same with his Purple Heart. But, he said, he will probably vote for Mr. Bush in
November because Iraq is not Vietnam and he believes the president is on the right
Others said they thought the United States was getting in deeper every day in the Middle
East and that Mr. Bush must take the blame.
"Doing something that you know instinctively is wrong and continuing to do it is the
height of folly — I fear that's where we are," said Robb Ruyle, who was in charge of
patient records for the 71st Evac. Mr. Ruyle, now a small-business owner in Montrose,
Colo., is married to a triage nurse he met in Pleiku, the former Lynn Morgan, and has a
son, Thomas, who is now serving in Iraq as an infantry intelligence specialist.
The 71st Evacuation Hospital, which had about 400 beds at its height, became famous
after the war because of the veterans who wrote and spoke about their work there. One
nurse, Lynda Van Devanter, wrote a memoir called "Home Before Morning: The Story of
an Army Nurse in Vietnam," which inspired the television show "China Beach." Another
nurse, Diane Carlson Evans, led a group that produced the first war memorial to
Vietnam's nurses, in 1993 in Washington.
The question of morale, in Vietnam and in Iraq, came up in many conversations at the
reunion. Some veterans said they worried greatly about the recent decisions to extend
duty assignments in Iraq. In Vietnam, they said, the one-year tour of duty was crucial to
morale, and soldiers knew the exact day they would be mustered home. But other
veterans said that soldiers in Iraq probably had better morale and more of a sense that
they were fighting for something of consequence. In Vietnam, many said, the sense of
futility was pervasive.
"Most of us, in a very short period of time in Vietnam, knew the war was wrong," said
Dr. Albert Horn- blass, now an ophthalmic plastic surgeon in New York City who served
in the 71st Evac from August 1969 to August 1970.
The 71st was not a fighting unit, of course, but a healing one, and many people here said
the difference may have colored their views and memories. Their job was to save lives,
and they say the empathy required by such a mission has remained.
Sharon Stanley Alden was a nurse in the postoperative unit who stayed in the Army for a
career and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Ms. Alden said she had visited soldiers who
were wounded in Iraq and was struck by the feeling that nothing had changed.
"I see the same kids I saw 35 years ago, although now it's their sons and daughters," she
said. "It's like we didn't learn."
Steven Streeper, now a pharmacist in Arco, Idaho, was an operating room technician. Mr.
Streeper said he never quite got over the first death he witnessed several weeks after
arriving in Pleiku in mid-1969, a Vietnamese girl about 9 years old who had been struck
by a military vehicle.
"I can still see her face," he said softly as the reception room buzzed with laughter and
the clink of glasses on the reunion's first night.
Mr. Streeper, who organized the reunion, said he thought the lesson of Vietnam was that
war cannot be tempered.
"I thought the lesson learned in Vietnam was that you commit American troops only
when you have a clearly defined goal, then you unleash them to achieve that goal without
telling them how to do it," he said. "I fear that the politicians are getting involved again."