Older vets reach out to younger troops

COLUMBUS, Ga. – Jack Wagner was wounded twice in Vietnam, but instead of a hero’s welcome upon his return, he was advised to ditch his uniform to avoid the wrath of anti-war protesters.

“That made a lot of Vietnam veterans go in the closet. They didn’t want to be labeled as baby killers,” said Wagner, the national commander of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association.

After being disparaged by demonstrators, Vietnam veterans also found themselves shunned by some World War II and Korean War veterans who belonged to the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other leading veterans groups.

“All we wanted was for someone to say, ‘Welcome Home,'” said Wagner, 59, of Cape Coral, Fla.

With World War II veterans dying at a rate of 1,100 per day and many Korean War vets now in their 70s, it’s Vietnam veterans like Wagner who have taken the helm of some of the nation’s leading veterans organizations. They know the importance of extending a welcoming hand to the latest generation of combat veterans: the more than 1 million Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Even though many of us may disagree on the way this war is being handled, we are in total support of those young troops,” Wagner said during his 4,800-member group’s recent annual convention here.

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