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Bring war dead home, bill says

Rep. Brown-Waite's measure would allow the removal of American soldiers buried in military cemeteries in France and Belgium.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003


SPRING HILL -- Air Force veteran Bud Fish has almost nothing kind to say about France.

He likens the current government to World War II French leaders who collaborated with the Nazis. He'd willingly kick France out of the United Nations for its opposition to the looming war with Iraq.

"I just don't trust them," Fish, 73, said Wednesday at Florida's second-largest VFW hall.

That said, Fish isn't too keen on his congresswoman's latest effort to up the anti-French rhetoric.

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican, sought cosponsors Wednesday for a bill to allow families to bring home to "patriotic soil" the remains of fallen soldiers buried in France and Belgium.

So far, only U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R.-Ill., has joined as a co-sponsor of the bill, which could affect the families of 81,172 soldiers interred in 14 U.S. military-operated cemeteries.

"It is respecting the wishes of the descendants who are American and who may be offended" by France's position, Brown-Waite said, noting the removal would be voluntary. "They'd be speaking German if it wasn't for Americans."

Her bill comes amid increasing anti-French atmosphere that has made it acceptable to rename french fries and french toast at congressional cafeterias.

Here's how Brown-Waite pitched the bill, which she calls the American Hero's Repatriation Act of 2003:

"Millions of dollars a year are collected by the French Government and French businesses from patriotic Americans visiting their loved ones who gave everything in defense of the French during WWII," she wrote. "It is not right that American citizens are compelled out of respect for the fallen to support the economy of a country who has turned its back on us and on their memory."

Natalie Loiseau, spokeswoman for the Embassy of France, quickly denounced the move.

"It is really unfortunate that some in this country know so little about France and the feelings of the French people," Loiseau said from her Washington D.C., office. "No one in France can understand these thoughts."

The Americans who freed France from foreign invaders twice in the last century are "extremely respected," she said. That makes it doubly unfortunate, Loiseau said, that some in the United States choose to be ignorant of the French perspective.

"No one having responsibility should do such things," she said.

This is not the first time the placement of America's war dead has come into play during tense international times.

In the 1960s, France, under Charles DeGaulle, bolted from the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and established its own nuclear deterrent. This strained relations with the United States. In 1966, DeGaulle asked that all American soldiers be removed from France.

"Does that include the dead Americans in military cemeteries as well?" Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked.

Brown-Waite's bill came to life after she met Ken Graham at a community forum in Dade City. Graham, who lives in Brown-Waite's home county, talked of his frustration with France's anti-war advocacy and said he would like to bring home his father's body from the U.S. cemetery in Alsace-Lorraine.

A law enacted during World War II set Dec. 31, 1951, as the deadline for families to choose what to do with their relatives' remains. The U.S. Army has opposed any efforts to get around that law, most recently last year when a Vermont family sought to bring the remains of their fallen soldier home from Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial.

Brown-Waite rejected the notion that her bill might fuel further xenophobia at home or anti-American sentiment abroad.

"This has to do with where people are comfortable or uncomfortable where their loved ones are buried," Brown-Waite said. "This is not continuing the late-night talk show host jokes about France."

Neither did she care whether the Department of Defense, which would be responsible for implementing the bill, supported the initiative.

"My voters did not vote for the Department of Defense. They voted for me," she said. "My job is to convince the Department of Defense that I am right."

She also might have to convince her constituents.

James McGlinchy, a Marine veteran of World War II living in Spring Hill, wondered what good it would do to bring the remains home. There's no way to be sure the remains are really your loved one, he said, and the only real thing you would get is revived memories perhaps better left in the past.

"I think it would be misery," McGlinchy, 81, said.

Fish, the Air Force veteran in Spring Hill, agreed. He added that the logistics of moving the remains seemed unfeasible.

"I think they're resting in peace where they are," he said. "I'll bet you there wouldn't be one out of 100 who would say, 'Bring them back."'

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story. Information from Times news wires was included in this report.

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