- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2003

Gary Eisenhower is a former Army sergeant with the finest of military pedigree, a relative of a retired general and U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But yesterday, Mr. Eisenhower, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran, rolled into Washington for Veterans Day ceremonies in an unassuming bus along with 30 other members of the group VietNow. His plans for this week include paying respects to his cousin, Jack, who was killed in the war.

“His name is on the Vietnam Wall,” said Mr. Eisenhower, who had to identify his cousin’s body just 19 days before they were to return to the United States.

Five of the VietNow veterans who accompanied Mr. Eisenhower, including Sam Veer, 54, of Freeport, Ill., walked 820 miles to attend the inauguration of the Vietnam War Memorial on Veterans Day 1991.

Mr. Veer and Mr. Eisenhower’s stories are just two of the many that will be told today as hundreds of thousands of soldiers, former soldiers, proud parents, widows and others are expected to arrive in Washington for Veterans Day ceremonies.

David Wright, a teacher from Sordis, Ohio, brought wife Kelly; 17-year-old daughter, Collyn; and his father, Joseph Wright, to Arlington National Cemetery, especially to see President Bush lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Sgt. David Toothmor, 28, a bugler with the drum-and-bugle corps said it was his duty to “honor those who came before us.” And he described yesterday’s wreath-laying ceremony at the Iwo Jima Monument in honor of the U.S. Marine Corps’ 228th birthday as “very solemn and heartwarming.”

Emogene M. Cupp will spend today processing applications for a small but growing national organization that nobody wants to join.

The 83-year-old Mrs. Cupp helps run Gold Star Mothers Inc., a group that requires only that members be a mother who has lost a son or daughter in military service.

Mrs. Cupp lost her son, Robert, in Vietnam.

The D.C.-based group was formed about 80 years ago. More than 20,000 members belonged after World War II, but today there are fewer than 1,000.

However, Mrs. Cupp now finds herself putting in longer hours as new applications arrive from mothers whose sons or daughters were killed in Iraq.

“We never want the organization to get bigger,” she said. “Some mothers join right away. Others take longer. Every once in a while, we still get new ones from Vietnam. The mothers who lost [children] in Iraq seem to join right away.”

Rebecca Lalush joined after she lost her son, Michael, 23, in Iraq eight months ago in a helicopter crash. She is one of 17 members to join in the past few months.

“It does help to talk to somebody who has been through the same thing,” she said.

Mrs. Lalush lives three-and-a-half hours outside of the District, in Troutville, Va., too far away for her to visit her son’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery as often as she would like.

She spent yesterday cleaning out her son’s bedroom, packing military books and Little League trophies into cardboard boxes.

“You go through the different phases,” Mrs. Lalush said of her grief. “Right now, I still cannot believe it happened, and I go between sadness and anger. It helps to talk to somebody who can understand.”

Mrs. Lalush doesn’t question the decision of military leaders to send her son to Iraq, but she chafes at those who talk about the casualties in the context of political campaigns.

“It’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, not operation let’s find out if they have nuclear weapons,” she said.

Frank Young of Eastport, Maine, drove 800 miles with his wife, Pat, to attend today’s services and to make an annual pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“I came here out of respect for the people whose names are on the wall,” Mr. Young, 54, said. He spent 18 months in Vietnam and knows how close he came to having his own named etched in granite.

In 1969, Mr. Young, then a private in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Division, was shot in both arms, both legs, his chest and his neck.

He spent six months in an Army hospital recovering from his wounds before going off to fight again.

“We have a lot of pride,” he said of his unit, pointing out that soldiers with the same unit parachuted into northern Iraq in March.

He also said strong public support for American troops today is different from his experience of returning to an American public that was deeply divided about the war and about the troops that fought it.

“And it should be,” he said. “I would like to see every soldier who is in the war never have to be involved in combat. But that’s not realistic. As a Vietnam veteran, I believe that when the soldiers get off planes today, the guys who should be there to greet them are the guys that came back before them to let them know that we appreciate it.”

Jim Ottman of Ellsworth, Wis., spent a year in Vietnam. He described his visit to the memorial last night as “therapeutic.”

Now Mr. Ottman’s son, a 13-year Navy veteran, has left his wife and three children in Norfolk for deployment to Iraq to take his turn under fire.

“I know he’s safe, and I feel he’s safe,” Mr. Ottman said. “But I always get that little twitch when the 5 o’clock news comes on.”

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