The Vietnam War: Choices that defined a generation
Seattle Times staff reporters
Roger Bragg was 17 when a judge gave him three choices — high school, jail or military service — so he joined the Marines.
Steve Akers was 18 when he enlisted in the National Guard, friends in that branch assuring him, "We just play basketball."
Kerry Allman wanted to be a college student, not a soldier, and at 17 fought for a deferment.
Unlike any war in U.S. history, the Vietnam War defined a generation of draft-age men — nearly 27 million — by the choices they made. While World War II unified the nation against tyranny and fascism, Vietnam had a much murkier mission, and far fewer wanted to fight.
Military deferments — most of them educational — made it possible for more than half of those who were eligible to avoid serving. Some resisted the draft illegally. Many others served, but not in combat. In the end, about 2 million were sent to Vietnam.
For Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush, the choices they made as much-younger men have become, nearly four decades later, measurements of character in this year's presidential campaign.
"The defining event for the current generation of leaders is the Vietnam War," said David Anderson, a University of Indianapolis history professor and author. "Not everyone was in it, but certainly the generation was shaped by where you were and what your choices were."
Kerry graduated from Yale in 1966, when Yale men were expected to serve "for God, for Country and for Yale." He joined the Navy, went to Vietnam and became a war hero, and later an anti-war activist. Bush graduated from Yale in 1968 amid growing opposition to the war. He entered the Texas Air National Guard, making combat unlikely.
Now, as Kerry and Bush face scrutiny over the military paths they took in the 1960s, we look at the choices made by six local men and how those decisions shaped their lives.
Gary Wright, 57
Mayor of New Denver, B.C.
Gary Wright, son of a career Army officer, was a self-described geek growing up in Lacey in the 1960s — a member of the North Thurston High School debate club, a Young Republican and a supporter of Barry Goldwater.
After graduating in 1964, he went to the University of Montana, where his politics shifted. He grew concerned about Vietnam and worked against the draft.
He got into trouble after he defended friends who were expelled over a snowball fight and found himself accused as well. His scholarship was revoked and he left school but joined Students for a Democratic Society, still working against the draft, knowing he could get called up any time.
He said his passport was revoked by the State Department for his anti-draft activities. In 1967, believing he had no real options, he loaded up his '57 Chevy and drove to Alberta. His father, though upset about his decision, gave him $500. His college sweetheart later joined him and they married and had three children. They divorced, and he remarried.
Fifteen years ago, he was elected mayor of the village of New Denver, in the Kootenai Mountains east of Vancouver. He renounced his American citizenship and has become a Canadian.
Granted amnesty, he still visits family in the States, and said he has no regrets. He watches the American political races with detached curiosity. "Both (Kerry and Bush) have to show that, by God, they're flag-waving Americans, and as long as the American public requires that of their elected representatives, then that's what you're going to get."
Richard (Skip) Brunhaver, 64
Skip Brunhaver of Bellevue was the son of a farmer, graduating from high school in Yakima in 1958. He attended Washington State University and worked as an engineer's aide at Boeing before enlisting in the Navy in 1961.
"I was interested in adventures of all kinds," he said. "And I had one hell of an aptitude for flying."
He flew 98 missions over North and South Vietnam, doing support for ground troops and also striking various targets such as railroads and bridges.
In August 1965, his A-4 Skyhawk malfunctioned over North Vietnam and he bailed out, suffering a broken back and dislocated knees. For the next 7-½ years, he was held at various camps, where he was beaten and nearly starved. At one point, he had 60 boils on his head.
He learned to survive hour by hour. "You say, 'Can I make it through the night? Maybe make it through the next hour?' "
Upon returning home, Brunhaver got into real estate, ran a stereo-speaker company and now does marketing for a data firm. He is married and has four children.
Though he's had dreams and flashbacks, he said, "I don't think it impacts me very much."
He voted for Bush and will do so again. "I don't necessarily like him, but you know he can handle decision-making because he's done it."
The problem with Kerry, he said, is that he repudiated the war after coming home, "and now is trying to recant his repudiation."
Roger Welles, 54
Unemployed and on full military disability
Roger Welles of Shoreline was 18 when he graduated from high school in suburban Denver in 1968, enlisting in the Navy several days later.
He had made some attempt to gain conscientious-objector status and briefly considered going to Canada, but "I wasn't very creative in those days. And I felt I had to serve my country."
Still, he was hoping to avoid combat, perhaps serving on a ship off the coast of Vietnam. Instead he got dropped off in a combat zone in 1969 as a corpsman attached to a Marine infantry unit.
Now on a full medical disability, Welles suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and Hepatitis C, possibly from being exposed to blood and needle sticks while treating wounded soldiers.
He has been diagnosed with problems ranging from depression and substance abuse to anxiety, anger and sleeplessness. His nightmares "were always about being chased, or chasing something with guns."
"I dreamed about injuries, memories about explosions, parts of legs, bodies laying around."
After his discharge in 1971, he made his way to the Seattle area. By 1994, he was getting counseling from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I had issues with authority. I ended up in a lot of arguments." He said he has stopped drinking and doing drugs, is seeing a psychiatrist and is on medication for depression.
He's proud to be the local representative for the Vietnam Veterans of America, helping other vets with their benefits claims.
He disdains Bush, not for joining the National Guard — "Everybody who wore an uniform is equal to me" — but because Bush "walked us into a war," a reference to Iraq. "If he gets re-elected, I'm moving to Australia."
He said he trusts Kerry, a fellow Vietnam vet who "has a closeness to the armed forces" and would think seriously before sending troops into battle.
Kerry Allman, 50
Kerry Allman of Des Moines was 17 when he graduated from high school in Los Angeles in 1970. A trombone player in the school band, he had a gift for music and a draft number of seven (a lower number meant a higher likelihood of being drafted) when he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Because he started college so young, the draft board didn't believe he could be a student and therefore didn't consider him eligible for a student deferment. That started a bureaucratic tangle that kept Allman returning again and again to the draft board, seeking a deferment.
In the meantime, he was ordered to report for a physical.
"It was dehumanizing," said Allman, a computer engineer for Tally Genicom in Kent. He is married, has a daughter and lives in Des Moines.
"You walked in and dropped your drawers ... Everybody was working out a way to get out. Some were taking drugs before going for the physical to screw up their heart rate. There were some who came dressed as flaming drag queens. I really had to jump through hoops."
Allman ultimately got his college deferment and graduated from UCLA in 1975.
Whether a presidential candidate served in the National Guard or fought in Vietnam is not an issue for him. Of greater concern, he said, is that Bush "is trying to pass himself off for what he isn't" — a combat veteran.
Steve Akers, 57
Steve Akers of Marysville graduated in 1965 from Blackfoot High School in Idaho, having grown up in a family that made its living from dairy, cattle and a sawmill.
Hoping to avoid combat, he joined the Idaho National Guard in 1966. Then he moved to Seattle to find work, but neglected to change his duty to the Seattle area. Before long he was notified that his Idaho unit of combat engineers was being called up for active service. At first he was told they were going to Alaska. But "we knew it wasn't true. We had M-16s and light sleeping bags."
Being in Vietnam changed him. A friend was killed by friendly fire, and even when building roads, his unit would come under rocket and sniper fire.
He returned home, started using drugs and got busted. His judge, a veteran of the Korean War, gave him two choices: Go to prison or go to college. Akers got a degree and became a therapist, helping troubled vets. Married, he's the father of two children.
Akers is not a fan of Bush's. "He lands on an aircraft carrier and acts macho. I just think he pretends to be a warrior, when he's not," he said.
The reason Vietnam remains an issue more than three decades later, he believes, is that "this country never healed. It's incomplete in our national psyche."
Roger Bragg, 19
Roger Bragg worked summers in Bellingham picking strawberries and working in a fish cannery, saving up to buy a yellow '56 Chevy with green fins. He grew up with two brothers and a divorced father who raised the boys alone.
Their mother had left when the boys were young, and Roger missed her very much, said Herbert Bragg, Roger's father.
Roger was easily swayed, and at 17, was cutting classes at Bellingham High School. When he got caught burglarizing a grocery store, a judge told him to finish high school or join the service. He became a Marine, the last thing his father wanted him to do.
"I begged him not to go and said, 'Son, I don't want to do this.' But I did sign for him."
In the summer of 1968, after his basic training, Roger visited his father before shipping out to Vietnam.
"I was driving him down to the airport and we stopped for gas and I moved over to let him drive," Bragg said.
"He had tears in his eyes. And I told him if he didn't want to go, I'd do something about it — even if it meant getting him to Canada. But he said, 'No, Dad, I've got to go.' "
It was the last time Bragg saw his son. On a jungle trail in Quang Nam Province, six months after Pfc. Bragg arrived, he and two other Marines got caught in a booby trap and were killed.
The Vietnam war was a terrible mistake, Bragg said, and whether Bush or Kerry fought there shouldn't be a factor in a political race. If Bush tried to get out of combat, "more power to him."
Bragg wishes his son had made that choice. He mourns his own decision to sign for him, especially every Feb. 18, Roger's birthday. Four days ago, he would have turned 54.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
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