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AFTERMATH OF WAR : Admiration for Military Men, Women Is Uniform

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Lt. Cmdr. Bill (Slick) Schlichter flew to Cincinnati, the airline pilot walked to the back where Top Gun graduate Schlichter sat and invited him to the first-class section.

In the afterglow of military victory in the Persian Gulf, thousands of miles from the war zone, suddenly Schlichter and every military man and woman in uniform is being hailed as a hero.

Chief Petty Officer Bobbie Carleton bought a roll of 29-cent stamps, and the clerk charged her the rate for 25-cent stamps. She purchased eyeglasses, and the store manager knocked 20% off the price because Carleton was in the military. And, at the Mission Valley mall, a man ran up to Carleton, breathlessly asking, “Hey, did you just get back?”

Informed that Carleton was in San Diego for the duration of the Persian Gulf War, the man shook her hand anyway.

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“I just wonder how long it’s going to last,” Carleton said.

In airports and restaurants, civilians are embracing their uniformed counterparts, pumping their hands, buying them drinks. In stores, they get discounts. At lunch counters, they get free meals. They may have never lifted a gun to battle the Iraqis, but suddenly everybody loves them--a complete reversal of the post-Vietnam War days.

“These soldiers and sailors are the recipients of superficial euphoria, just as their predecessors were the victims of a superficial kind of rejection. It’s an emotional overreaction to war,” said Gordon Clanton, who teaches sociology at San Diego State University. “Sailors or soldiers are almost like talismen--we communicate to them our feelings about the larger situation. . . . That’s the madness of war and the euphoria of peace.”

The United States has not won such a large, clear-cut military victory since World War II--making the euphoria over an apparent routing of Iraqi forces so much sweeter. And some predict that the recent military success will not only help pad the military budget but will also prove a tremendous boon to recruiting efforts.

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“This war has put to bed the legend of Vietnam,” said retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll Jr., deputy director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

For those who remember the stormy Vietnam War days, when there were few celebrations, and military personnel were warned not to wear their uniforms in public, the turnaround is dramatic. Plans for parades and elaborate homecoming celebrations have begun. San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor announced that the city will host a victory parade down Broadway. Entertainers Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope have already agreed to help with a special Hollywood parade to welcome home U.S. troops serving in the Persian Gulf--and many more extravaganzas are expected.

The families of those deployed have also begun their welcome efforts. The wives whose husbands deployed aboard the amphibious assault ship Tripoli have begun weaving together a huge lei, or wreath of plastic for the ship’s bow. Families with loved ones aboard the destroyer tender Acadia--expected to return at the end of April--have started shopping for outfits to wear to the pier.

“The whole aura is going to be real, real different,” said Capt. Wally Turner, who oversees the chaplains assigned to local ships. “It makes me feel proud to be in the military.”

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Turner recently strode in his uniform through downtown San Diego, and several people offered to buy him drinks. Turner, who joined the armed services 26 years ago, had spent a year in Vietnam and still remembers the cold welcome. He’s glad that his son, a pilot deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Kennedy in the Persian Gulf, will receive a warmer reception.

And others, too, acknowledged a thaw in the attitude toward the military.

“When we came back from Vietnam, they called us baby killers,” said Cmdr. Larry Simmons, the executive officer of the Naval Special Warfare Center. But recently a woman approached Simmons at an airport, asked him if he was a Navy SEAL, then requested his autograph.

“To me, it seems like the American people have come around,” Simmons said.

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But the change in public attitude is not easy for everyone to accept. Jesse James Bell, a petty officer 1st class, said he hopes that the homecoming celebrations for the Desert Storm troops will pay tribute to Vietnam veterans.

“I feel somewhat depressed and dejected because of how the Vietnam War vets were treated--I don’t know if it’s jealousy,” Bell said. “You say, ‘Damn, I was in Vietnam 365 days--it wasn’t no short war.’ These guys are there five to seven months in the desert, and they are going to get a heroes’ welcome.”


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