By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- Five Vietnam veterans gathered for breakfast at Perkins Restaurant in Rochester recently to talk about the war in Iraq.

There was Gary Raymond and Gary Gullickson; Dave Nogosek and Dave Crawley; and Lloyd Parkin.

They're all from the Rochester area, born and raised. Vietnam is the one faraway place they've ever spent much time, much less, as gunner Gary Gullickson did, while hanging out the window of a CH46 med-evac helicopter braving hailstorms of enemy fire day after day.

We tucked into eggs and hash browns as Vietnam memories, triggered by the nonstop media coverage of the Iraq war, flooded the table.

"You see things on TV and the feelings come back," said Gary Raymond, who was a boat captain with Navy Task Force 116 in Vietnam. "I start thinking, 'Here's what I'd do if I was in Iraq. The moon is full tonight, so I'm exposed. To save myself and my crew I've got to do this and this. Then it all gets to be too much and I turn the TV off."

Life-and-death questions bobbed through the conversation, unanswered of course, as waitresses refilled our coffee cups.

"When you go to war, 'Love your neighbor' and 'Thou shalt not kill,' that's all gone," said Dave Nogosek, who wore his green fatigues to breakfast. "It seems I lost a lot between the time I was a teenager and when I came back to Rochester after Vietnam."

Everyone agreed that being spat upon and misunderstood when they returned to the United States was actually worse than being shot at in Vietnam.

"I wanted to go back to Vietnam where it was safe," one said.

Once, after he returned from Vietnam, Gary Raymond got into a squabble with his father. He pointed a loaded gun at his father's head to settle it.

Soldiers and Society

Another cup of coffee was poured and then came the most important question: Will it happen all over again after Iraq?

"Every one of our guys in Iraq will come home injured mentally," Gullickson said. "We need to give them counseling for that. We can't allow these vets to come home and then go into a shell."

The theme at breakfast was a certain distance, a gap, a void. It was mentioned many times, in many forms and guises. The distance between an American soldier and his North Vietnamese enemy; between a young American and the man he becomes later in his life; between that man and his wife; between that man and his fellow veterans. When too big a gap opens between the one and the other, in every case, suffering rushes in. There are arguments, standoffs, threats, wars.

The toughest gap of all, these veterans said, is the one that sometimes opens between a society and its soldiers. They fell into that abyss after the Vietnam War and they never want it to happen to another vet.

"Whether you are for the war or not, we've got to support the troops" was their main refrain.

Yet they wonder if it's possible. Their own experience gives them nagging doubts. Nogosek said that when soldiers return from war, "people don't understand, but also, they don't want to understand. They can't understand. They are self-involved with themselves and their families."

Gullickson said: "For those who haven't seen, no explanation is possible. For those who have seen, no explanation is necessary."

By sharing their thoughts about Iraq, the vets showed they don't buy that line entirely. They're still feeling, explaining and describing to us their experience of war's horror -- to make sure the worst is never repeated.

That's a warrior's work, too -- maybe the toughest there is.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report