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With five words, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America opened a rift among veterans groups that could derail efforts to improve mental health care and other benefits.
The dispute — with older veterans complaining that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are getting too much attention and too much money while they wait in long lines for medical appointments — was sparked by a statement issued May 11 by Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief of IAVA, about the fatal shooting of five service members at a counseling center in Iraq, allegedly by another U.S. service member.
Trying to put the reported case of friendly fire in perspective, Rieckhoff said: "Unlike during the Vietnam War, today's military is an professional, all-volunteer force."
He went on: "There have been only five cases of intentional fratricide by U.S. service members in Iraq. But these incidents, however rare, draw public attention to an important issue: the enormous stress on our armed forces. Much more must be done to address troops' psychological injuries before they reach a crisis point."
The phrase "Unlike during the Vietnam War" is being taken as a jab at the professionalism of Vietnam veterans. Joe Morgan, a Vietnam veteran and president of Veterans of Modern Warfare, said Rieckhoff's statement has "stirred a fierce and justifiable outrage by all veterans, not just the Vietnam veterans he maligned."
The head of the nation's largest organization for combat veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, also criticized the statement, saying Rieckhoff "doesn't need to be reminded that every entitlement, every service and every program Iraq and Afghanistan warriors enjoy — many of whom are VFW members — is because previous generations of, as he regrettably put it, ‘nonprofessionals' demanded and fought to be properly recognized and respected for their service to our country," said Glen Gardner Jr., VFW commander. "He owes a sincere apology to our brethren."
Reickhoff did issue an apology. "We have tremendous respect for all generations of vets — especially Vietnam vets — and would never want to diss any other veteran, generation of veterans or veterans group," he said in a subsequent statement. "It was not our intent to offend anyone or disparage anyone. If we did, we sincerely apologize."
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said the squabble among veterans of different generations shows two things: "New veterans don't know much about older veterans, and don't feel any ties to them, and everyone is worried that someone is going to get more than they or something better than them."
Filner has faced criticism as he has pushed to improve benefits for World War II veterans who served in the Philippine Scouts and the Merchant Marine, two groups who were promised veterans benefits that were never delivered.
Some of the opposition to his initiative has been based on the view that spending money on older veterans when there are pressing needs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is wrong. But Filner said he thinks everyone needs to be treated fairly.
"A broken promise for one veteran is broken promise for all veterans," he said.