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Veterans Discuss Situation in Iraq

War should be used as a last alternative, they say.

Out of all the memories of her tour of duty in the Persian Gulf, Tara Johnston remembers the armed guards. They would stand at every corner of the hospital, keeping watch over the Iraqi soldiers and civilians she had helped to treat.

The Iraqis themselves were nervous, too. As the doctors treated their patients for shrapnel and bullet wounds, the patients waited, cautiously.

"They were terrified of us," Johnston said of the Iraqi patients.

Although it happened years ago, the story illustrating the uncomfortable interactions between the Iraqis and U.S. military personnel like Johnston is still relevant today. As the United States heads into a potential conflict with Iraq, Vienna residents aren't sheltered from the prospects of war. Neighbors who are reservists face the possibility of being called to duty, while a march on the National Mall on the 18th is expected to bring in thousands of citizens protesting U.S. policy on Iraq.

And while Johnston doubts the effectiveness of removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to bring an end to terrorism, like other veterans of Vienna's American Legion, she believes that America should defend itself and go to war only after exhausting all other political and diplomatic means.

"I definitely think we need to take some type of action to stop terrorists," said Johnston, who served in the Gulf War from August 1990 to May 1991 as patient administrative specialist in the 5th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). But killing Saddam "I don't think would be the end."

On a late Friday afternoon, three veterans from three different wars offered their perspective on a possible war with Iraq. In the dining area of the American Legion's clubhouse, the veterans all agreed that war should be an option only after all the others have been exhausted.

"The predominant opinion here is that we got to get rid of Saddam Hussein," said post commander and World War II veteran Charles Nackos. Yet he added that Saddam's removal could come through other means, such as an internal revolt or through United Nations and international pressure. "I think we're going to push to the last minute until he quits."

Veteran Ronald Patterson agreed. His brother, John III, was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

"War, even if there's a victor - it doesn't contribute to any country to be in a war. If there's any way to have a diplomatic solution, that is the way to go," Patterson said.

Both Nackos and Patterson said they had joined the military out of a sense of adventure. Nackos was an Army man assigned to Fort Bragg in 1945 and 1946, when he was 18. He helped discharge personnel who had spent their time fighting abroad. Many of his friends from his hometown of Wilson, N.C., died overseas.

"That's why I'm a fanatic of World War II. It's not like I didn't know anybody," Nackos said.

Patterson was in the ROTC in college and was shipped with his entire battalion to Germany in 1961. He was a battery control officer who was in the Hawk missile outfit. It was peacetime, so he wasn't engaged in any conflicts.

"It was not a bad experience for me," Patterson said.

When asked if they would serve again, both replied that they would, although they agreed that military service should be voluntary.

"It teaches so much, all this technology," Nackos said.

"It's a way to give back to your country," added Patterson.

Like her fellow veterans, Johnston joined the military out of a sense of adventure. The leadership and discipline involved fascinated her, and the college money that could be gained through service helped sway her, too.

When she was called to the Persian Gulf, she was 20.

"It was a unique experience in the culture," Johnston said, recalling how the culture treated women. She had to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, and she was allowed to drive vehicles while the women who lived there were not. "The women were well-educated, they spoke perfect English."

When patients came into her MASH unit initially, it was because of dehydration or miscellaneous accidents. Once the conflict started, however, the unit treated civilians for gunshot and shrapnel wounds.

Johnston paused when asked if would serve again. She finally answered that she would, if she could be in the same type of unit.

"I think we played a huge role in serving the troops," Johnston said. But with threats such as biological weapons and fundamentalist adherents willing to commit suicide, the landscape of warring has changed.

"We sit back and hope that the leaders do the right thing," Nackos said.