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At War’s End, Questions About the Here and Now : * After the Cheers Die Down, We Should Ask What We Can Learn

Orange County long has been a proving ground for the American Dream, a destination for those returning from war and those escaping it. The newest veterans of conflict are streaming home to tell the story of a nation’s latest war, and to pick up their lives again.

It has been that kind of place. The conclusions of World War II and the Korean War ushered in periods of growth that transformed Southern California. Vietnam brought the next generation of veterans seeking an agreeable place to live, and there were some who arrived bearing the scars of a controversial war.

One legacy of conflict in Asia, a wave of immigrants, set the stage for the multi-cultural county of today that will profoundly shape the future for the returning troops. The troops have come home from a short war to find fresh census data showing dramatic shifts in ethnic composition. These changes were well under way long before the troops went to the Gulf, but they can be sure that there will be important societal changes ahead as they rejoin the civilian work force or carry on in the military.

For the moment, the troops have returned to a welcome of bunting and yellow ribbons, and to a nation with a renewed confidence in the military. But for many, it also is a homecoming to harsh economic reality. A staggering 80% of Orange County Marines moonlight--their families hard-pressed in peace and harder pressed in war. Victory has not eased the financial burden. Helping them to cope once the cheers have subsided will test the enduring spirit of community in Orange County.

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If we can give our part, the homecoming troops may have something to teach us about our modern world in return. They have lived long days and nights in the Islamic orb. They have seen the universal face of war.

One who saw human suffering at close range was Air Force medic Capt. Jay Bruhl. He returned to Capistrano by the Sea Hospital in Dana Point to tell colleagues of “the opposite end of the terrible price of war.” As part of a California Air National Guard unit, he ferried hundreds of Iraqi prisoners of war from the front. His account of their fright, hunger and wounds was reminiscent of William Tecumseh Sherman’s 19th-Century observation that “war is at best barbarism.”

We cannot forget either as we hail these troops that they were very fortunate for the brevity of the conflict and for the small number of American casualties. A major engagement of Marines from Camp Pendleton in a ground war could have bequeathed a far different catalogue of war stories for grandchildren yet to be born.

Thankful now to have the troops back and proud of their accomplishments for a remarkable coalition of nations, Orange County plans a fitting parade for May 18. It will be, in a very real sense, America’s celebration.

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By the beginning of last week, more than 1,000 of the many thousands of Marines dispatched from area bases were back. As more trickle home, it is appropriate to have a fixed day of recognition marked on the county’s calendar: Armed Forces Day, 1991.

The Gulf War during the past months has given us and the nation a sense of unity and purpose not easily achieved or sustained in the complexity of a lifetime or a generation.

For a fleeting moment now, we even glimpse this county with the fresh eyes of a shared homecoming, as the troops praise the sight of distant snowcapped mountains and nearby hills suddenly green from the rains.

If some of that euphoria inevitably fades in tomorrow’s return to postwar normalcy, neither we nor history will forget the many contributions these brave Americans made in a period of months half a world away.

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