The Iraq War and Islamic extremism were the topics of discussion last week in Vienna during the monthly meeting of local Chapter 227 of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Part of a monthly tradition that has featured discussions led by Vietnam POWs, historical authors, intelligence officers and a medal of honor recipient, February's meeting introduced security consultant firm president and former Marine Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt for a discussion on terrorism and its connection with extremist sects of Islam.
"Washington has such a wealth of people who can lead conversations on a wide range of topics ... that are interesting to veterans," said Leonard Ignatowski, a former Army Lieutenant, Vienna resident and chapter president. "We started this tradition by having discussions amongst ourselves and eventually it grew to others as well."
While these topics generally focus on things like veteran's affairs, this month's contemporary and controversial issue was a slight deviation from tradition, but not a break from what is considered interesting to the group, Ignatowski said.
"We consider ourselves to be informed and part of being informed is addressing today's issues," he said. "Plus I think you'll find that a lot of us can sort of relate to these guys who are driving around Baghdad right now. It's stressful."
For Dennis Stephens, a former Air Force officer and bomber pilot who served in Vietnam in the 1970s, becoming informed on contemporary subjects is a duty of all U.S. citizens, regardless of whether they are veterans or not.
"I think it's important for people to understand the issues that affect your country," Stephens said. "No matter what your opinions or feelings are about these issues, you have to be informed and exposed to differing opinions."
THE MEETING BEGAN with the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence in memory the group's "brothers" who served in Vietnam and who are fighting now, paired with a call for world peace.
Present at the meeting last Thursday, which was held at local Vienna pub, Neighbors, was a cross-section of those who feel close to or were affected by the Vietnam War. They included a South Korean Army chaplain, wives of Vietnam vets, veterans of other foreign wars, nurses, pilots and mechanics, amongst others.
After a brief discussion of chapter business, Zumwalt spoke of the connection between dictatorship, totalitarianism and censorship and its effect on the stagnation of education and, in turn, civilization in the Middle East.
Inevitably the discussion was directed toward a debate over the justifications surrounding the United States current and controversial War in Iraq.
For Dan Kirby, a former Army infantry sergeant who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, the issue of the War in Iraq is something that many Vietnam veterans take close to their hearts, regardless of their opinions.
"I see the similarities in what was happening back then and what is going now ... and I think you'd find a lot of veterans saying that," Kirby said. "It brings it closer to home for us because we've fought in a war."
WHILE THIS MONTH'S meeting featured discussion of a controversial topic, the most important function of the group is its capacity to act as a magnet for organizing veterans to work in civic projects and support each other, Ignatowski said.
"We don't sit around and tell war stories ... but being around people with similar experiences, it's a comfortable feeling," Kirby said.
For Marj Watson, an artist who has been an associate member of the group since 1992, the group has acted as a support group for veterans, channeling their efforts to improve each other's lives and the community.
"It's all a part of the healing process ... these people have formed a unique bond with one another because they have shared a lot of the same experiences," said Watson. "There's this special camaraderie that came out of this conflict ... and you see it here all the time."
The bond that is instinctively felt among veterans of the War in Vietnam, paired with the individual skills of group members, has made Ignatowski's experience with the group the most memorable, he said.
"We're a really diverse group of people here ... I think that if you were to talk to all of the veterans here, you'd find each person has a different perspective formed from a different experience," Ignatowski said. "It's how we all come and work together that we bring out the best in each other."