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Vietnam veterans air concerns about VA, future of Iraq

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2010 - Allen Hill, a Vietnam War veteran from Festus, is leery of the real reason the United States is ending its military operations in Iraq.

President Barack Obama's explanation to be delivered on television Tuesday night -- that it's now time for the Iraqis to defend themselves -- sounds to Hill a lot like what then-President Richard M. Nixon said in 1975, when the U.S. ended military action in Vietnam.

"All they're doing is appeasing the American people," said Hill, 62. "I don't think they finished the job (in Iraq), just like they didn't finish the job in Vietnam."

Both wars, he said, were run badly and dragged on too long.

Fellow Vietnam vet Terry Faulkner, also of Jefferson County, is equally pessimistic. In the Vietnam War, communist North Vietnam ended up taking over South Vietnam.

In the case of Iraq, Faulkner recalled its feisty neighbor, Iran. "Iran is going to go in and take (Iraq) over," he said. "From Day One, when we first went in (to Iraq), I told a friend, 'We are doing a big favor for Iran.' "

Faulkner and Hill provided their observations about Iraq after attending a veterans meeting in Crystal City with U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

The one-hour session in the congressman's Jefferson County office was part of a series of about a dozen meetings with veterans that Carnahan has scheduled around his 3rd District to hear their concerns. A key discussion topic is whether their health-care needs are met by the Veterans Administration.

A Carnahan spokeswoman said that meeting notices are being sent out to all veterans in the community where the session will be held.

The sessions are prompted by this summer's disclosures about lapses in sterilization of dental equipment at the VA's Cochran Medical Center in St. Louis that may have exposed up to 1,800 veterans to life-threatening diseases.

Hill was virtually alone among Tuesday's audience of about 20 veterans, in that he reported general satisfaction with the VA. All the others who spoke had some horror story to tell, the most frequent dealing with unreturned phone calls seeking assistance for some specific health issue.

Faulkner told of being treated by a VA dentist who didn't use gloves and who was conducting dental procedures on three other patients at the same time.

Carnahan said in an interview afterward that what he heard Tuesday from the veterans was in line with what he'd heard at similar sessions.

"The over-arching theme is that the VA system is one of the best, and we want to keep it that way," he said. "There are some serious problems at Cochran, including lack of customer service and failure to make people accountable. At the end of the day, we want to make sure those issues are resolved."

Carnahan also is paying closely to the departure of troops from Iraq, since he serves on the House Foreign Affairs committee and has visited Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carnahan said that Obama's address will mark "a milestone," as the United States scales back its military involvement in Iraq to allow the Iraqi government to run things.

Is Iraq stable enough? "Time will tell," Carnahan said. "It's in Iraq's interest to protect itself."

But Carnahan acknowledged the challenges. "It's a tough neighborhood," he said.

As Faulkner and Hill recall, so was Vietnam.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.