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Veterans divided over their own kids' service

Associated Press
Published May 27, 2005

Fresh out of high school in 1971, Alan Cook enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam in the waning months before the U.S. pullout.

He said he opposes America's war in Iraq, yet is proud of his two sons - one serving there now, the other scheduled to go soon - who decided on their own to follow his path into military service.

Cook's mixed emotions reflect a broader split among the nation's veterans at a time when Army recruiters are failing to meet their quotas. A recent Pentagon poll indicated that parents who served in the military were divided almost evenly between those who would encourage their children to enlist and those who would advise against it.

Veterans remain twice as likely to recommend military service to their children as parents who didn't serve, according to the Pentagon.

But many veterans have specific concerns that temper their views: Some question the mission assigned to U.S. soldiers in Iraq; others say they are embittered by what they view as lack of empathy for health problems they link to their service in the Persian Gulf War.

Cook, of Castro Valley, Calif., tried to steer a neutral course, even as his oldest son, Daniel, began talking about a possible Army career during middle school.

"I didn't encourage them to go into Army - there are better things to do," said Cook, 52. "But I didn't want to push them away from it, either. If you push, (kids) will do the opposite."

Both sons enlisted straight out of high school and joined the 101st Airborne Division. Daniel, 21, is now serving his second stint in Iraq; Steven, 19, is at Fort Campbell, Ky., expecting to deploy to Iraq in September.

"They could be there at the same time - it's nerve-racking," said Cook, who works for a San Francisco investment banking firm and is treasurer of Vietnam Veterans of America.

Mike Wiswell of Columbus, Ohio - who served in the Army from 1973 to 1994 - also has a son in Iraq; 21-year-old Doug Wiswell joined the Army Reserves while a sophomore at Ohio State, looking for a way to pay his college bills.

"I know he's patriotic - he's got flags on the wall in his room - but the decision was more a practical one," said Wiswell, the American Legion's membership director in Ohio. "I told him the Army offers great opportunities for travel, for an education, a life experience he'll never get elsewhere."

John Nelson, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation services for the Michigan branch of the American Legion, was an Army warrant officer in 1968-71, during the height of Vietnam War protests. His son, Patrick, 26, is now at Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga.

"I discussed the military with him as a potential career choice," John Nelson said. "I played devil's advocate. . . . He went in with his eyes open."

Nelson, from Ypsilanti, Mich., said he urged his son to become an officer in part because of the difficult, police-style duties being assigned to some enlisted soldiers in Iraq.

"The Iraq war, as currently being waged, is very detrimental to a soldier's mission," Nelson said. "There's no way to train a soldier for some of the decisions they have to make."

Julie Mock's sons are only 7 and 9, but she said she would never advise either of them to enter the military.

Mock, 38, has multiple sclerosis, which she links to her Army service in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.

She said she believes she and her husband, also a Gulf War veteran, passed on health problems to their elder son, Stephen, who has experienced several developmental disorders.

"I would never encourage anyone to go into the military, ever," said Mock of Bothell, Wash. "You're signing your health away, and you'll never get it back."

Similarly, Army veteran Bill Schadowsky of La Porte, Ind., said he would discourage his grandchildren and other young people from joining the military because of his bitterness over health issues.

He is among many Gulf War veterans who contend they suffered radiation exposure from depleted uranium, a heavy metal used in armor-piercing weapons.

"It's not that I'm not proud of my service - I'm just very wary of the government right now," said Schadowsky, 50. "It's one thing to fight for your country. To come back and have to fight your government is a whole 'nother animal."

Louis Oberbeck, 64, served in the Navy from 1959 to 1979, and lives now near Jefferson, Texas.

He signed paperwork when one of his sons applied to join the National Guard, but says he now would be blunt in expressing his doubts about the Iraq war and veterans' health care programs.

"I liked it while I was there," he said of his own service. "But the longer I'm out, the less enthusiastic I am. . . . Now, I'd have a very strong sales pitch saying "Don't go.' "

[Last modified May 27, 2005, 00:41:05]

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