- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

OCEANSIDE, Calif., April 14 (UPI) — The worst may be over for the latest cadre of Marines to sail off to war from Camp Pendleton, however the image of Vietnam lurks under the surface in neighboring Oceanside where the anxiety over the clash with Iraq has been gradually replaced with a sense of relief.

Flags, supportive banners and yellow ribbons adorn storefronts and light poles in the downtown district of this legendary military town where Pendleton Marines have wiled away their off-duty hours ever since World War II.

The streets that are normally filled with wandering groups of leathernecks, though, were largely empty on a recent spring Saturday. It was easy to find a parking place and there was plenty of room in the watering holes and barbershops that cater to the Pendleton clientele.

"Normally, we try to get people in and out of here, but these days, we're not so busy," a waitress at Mary's Family Restaurant said as she invited a couple of weekend visitors to linger over their iced teas in the venerable but nearly empty diner.

Although business is down in Oceanside due to the departure of 30,000 customers, the city is taking the economic downturn in stride and is also certainly devoid of the fear and ugly bitterness that permeated the city and much of the nation during Vietnam.

"This situation is a lot different that Vietnam; it's like night and day," said Robert Alexander, proprietor of Dorothy's Military, purveyors of G.I. surplus, uniform cleaning and tailoring services and souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with fearsome designs that could probably scare the Republican Guard into surrendering.

"We do everything but cut their hair and shine their shoes," Alexander piped up.

Alexander and Dorothy's were both around in the 1960s and 1970s when Pendleton was the last stop for thousands of Marines bound for the seemingly never-ending combat in South Vietnam. Unlike those days of unrest, Oceanside civilians are solidly behind the Iraq war, which has been a much faster and smaller-scale campaign and, most importantly, has resulted in minimal casualties.

"Everyone is for this effort except for just a few moms who are college educated that come in and are hoping that 'junior' won't get called up and shipped out. But they're really in the vast minority," Alexander observed. "Most people who come in here are supportive of our country's war efforts."

The support for the troops runs at a fairly quiet noise level in Oceanside. The Marines offer a bevy of counseling services for military families while merchants — such as Alexander — wait for silk screeners to start unveiling their victory T-shirt designs and the flower stand on Oceanside Boulevard offers free roses to Marine wives.

There are some people, however, for whom the war is bringing back bitter memories. "We need to keep the freedom for the Iraqi people but I would hate to see this turn into another Vietnam," lamented Tony D'Aprile, a Vietnam veteran who readily admits to not watching or reading news coverage of the Iraqi campaign. "That is what makes me most angry, that it could happen."

D'Aprile and his wife of 34 years, Francine, who he met in Hawaii on his way to Vietnam, stopped by Dorothy's to purchase Marine Corps T-shirts while in town from Riverside to visit the wife of Francine's nephew, who is currently in Baghdad.

Francine, who like her husband, belongs to a number of veterans groups, has been handing out yellow lapel ribbons she has made that also include dashes of red, white and blue and a single black strand in honor of those who have been killed, prisoners of war or who are missing in action. There is also the name of her nephew, Gunnery Sgt. Sergio Monzon, a salty career Marine serving with the combat engineers in Iraq, attached to the ribbon display.

"The future has clashed with our past," Francine quietly observed. "We are still clearly dealing with Vietnam, which is our past and now we are dealing with this conflict — our future."

Both Tony and Francine said that while they supported the war and were "120-percent" behind the troops, they avoided war news due to D'Aprile's continuing post-traumatic stress syndrome, a condition he has suffered most of his adult life.

"I'm a warrior without a war," lamented D'Aprile, who said he was wounded twice and contracted malaria while serving as a Marine machine-gunner during the height of the Vietnam War and simply can't bear to watch as inexperienced teenagers head off for their baptism under fire much as he did when he was a tender 17 years of age.

D'Aprile still wears the labyrinth of grief on his face from more than four decades ago due to the horrors he witnessed during the 13 months he says he spent in the Vietnam jungles. He sports a full gray beard and tears escape from his eyes when he speaks of his concern that the soldiers on duty now will suffer similar fates to his. The aging veteran says he cannot reconcile sending inexperienced soldiers into Iraq, dooming them to a fate of sadness or death.

"The Korean War was close enough to the Vietnam War that there were still experienced leaders around," he explained to UPI. "Now, so many bases around the country are closed and all the more experienced military leaders have retired."

"I think the veterans should be there. People more experienced should be there — the old-timers," said the Utica, N.Y. native. "They wouldn't even have to pay me to go over there. They should have offered this assignment to the more experienced guys."

D'Aprile said he received a telephone call from a Marine Corps buddy in New York who felt the same way he did.

"He wants to go to Iraq, too, even if it's just to do bunker duty so the young guys can get some sleep," D'Aprile said.

D'Aprile might have disagreed with Alexander about the modern military's level of basic soldiering skills and the seeming over-reliance on computers and other high-tech tools, but not out of some sense of misplaced superiority. Instead, it was out of a healthy sense of respect for the dangers of war in any era and the effect it can have on those who are cast into that crucible.

Before he and Francine walked out of Dorothy's into the quiet, sun-drenched sidewalk, he said earnestly, "I just don't want them to have to go through what I went through."

Alexander admitted later that he had had to bite his tongue while D'Aprile spoke of his worry over alleged inexperienced soldiers. His personal experience told him that the Pendleton Marines who wander in and out of his establishment were, in fact, highly trained and skilled modern warriors.

"No one has moved faster or farther with fewer casualties that our men right now," he noted. "I deal with these guys every day and I know their training; it seems to me their training is particularly good. I disagree with that guy about experience, but he was a vet and I couldn't say anything to him because of what he's been through."

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