As America celebrates the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day today, local veterans from the country’s most recent war said they worry about changing perceptions about the War on Terror but still see growing support toward veterans.
The Dayton region is home to 122,330 veterans, around 19,000 who fought or served as part of the War on Terror, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.
It has been 15 years since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and more than 17 years since the 9/11 attacks that led to the United State’s battles in Afghanistan and some remain critical of this country’s involvement.
The most recent Iraq war in particular has come under scrutiny from politicians and high-profile people in the U.S. During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump said the 2003 invasion was “the single worst decision ever made” while Democrat Hillary Clinton said voting in favor of military action in Iraq was a “mistake.”
Politicians’ opinions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a frequent topic of discussion for Iraq vet Nick Ripplinger and his “veteran buddies.” Ripplinger said he prefers to give politicians the benefit of the doubt.
“Absolutely part of me is like: What the hell are you thinking?” Ripplinger said. “But, then the other part of me is like obviously you have more information than I do and hopefully you’ve got a team of advisers that are trying to advise you to do the right thing.”
Ripplinger was deployed to Iraq from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2008 to 2009. He then returned to Dayton where in 2017 he started Battle Sight Technologies, which created an “infrared crayon” that the military uses to mark buildings.
The trick, Ripplinger said, is trying not to take negative opinions from America’s leaders personally. It’s something Afghanistan Army vet Abraham Hall has also dealt with since returning home.
Hall left for Afghanistan in 2008 and in the decade since he first deployed he said his own opinions on the wars have changed. He now questions why the U.S. has been in both countries for so long.
Through his own change in opinion, Hall said he understands why some American leaders have changed their mind about the wars. But, he can still have a difficult time dealing with it.
“It might just be because I served and I was taking it personally,” Hall said. “But, I definitely felt like there were a bunch of pressures pushing on me.”
‘They blamed you’
The Vietnam War has drawn comparisons to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for its controversy and the protests which caused many to question the United States’ involvement.
Vietnam veterans took the brunt of the war’s criticism, said Mark Landers, new executive director of the Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission. Landers himself is a retired colonel who served during the Vietnam era.
“In the Vietnam era there was no support of the veteran at least not throughout the country as a whole,” Landers said. “They blamed you for it.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive by North Vietnamese troops and the height of protests against the Vietnam War. There are approximately 3,121 Vietnam era veterans living in the Dayton area, according to U.S. Census data.
Troops in the Vietnam era, Landers said, didn’t come home to celebrations or parades. Instead they returned from the battlefront to a country that had little compassion in a time before post-traumatic stress disorder was considered a medical condition.
Landers sees some similarities between the way people perceived the Vietnam War and how they view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. But, he said that veterans today aren’t blamed for the wars they fought in.
“Today, I believe that a lot of people believe we should not be in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Landers said. “However, they support the veteran in light of that…It’s hard to find someone today that doesn’t support veterans.”
‘Love and respect’
The fallout of the Vietnam War led to significant changes in the way people treat veterans. Vietnam vets, Landers said, wanted to make sure future veterans didn’t get the same treatment or welcome home they received.
“American culture was so shaken by the way the vets of Vietnam were treated that we tend to no longer associate vets with the wars they were sent into,” said Paul Lockhart, a Wright State University professor who is also a military historian.
With a few exceptions, both Ripplinger and Hall said they have found people don’t seem to hold the war they fought in against them.
Ripplinger pointed to this year’s midterms as evidence of the support veterans are receiving throughout the country.
Hundreds of veterans ran for congress this year, likely more than in any other American election, several media outlets have reported. In one of the higher-profile races Democrat Amy McGrath, who was the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot, lost in a race for Kentucky’s 6th congressional district.
“Although the opinion of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has changed… Americans still have a strong love and respect for what these men and women are doing even though they could be completely opposed to the war,” Ripplinger said.
There have always been “pockets” of people who don’t have compassion or an understanding for vets, Hall said. Though Hall said he’s sometimes felt a disapproving glare from people who realize he’s a veteran, he thinks that feeling has decreased since the start of the War on Terror.
“I think that people are getting better with seeing what happened and seeing veterans and understanding that it was part of a bigger picture,” Hall said. “You can’t just hate people just because they fought for something that you disagree with.”