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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

Vietnam war vet searches his soul

CINCINNATI - Robert Critell said he volunteered for the Vietnam War because he didn't want the government to draft him.

"I didn't want to go to Vietnam. It scared me to death," he said.

He chose the Navy because he didn't want to be in the Army.

He said he saw his father shed tears only once - the day his son shipped out to Vietnam.

Mr. Critell served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 on a cargo boat that worked the Qua-Viet River, which was along the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam.

When Mr. Critell returned to the United States, he went through customs in San Francisco and the military police told him and others to put on civilian clothes because the anti-war protesters were singling out veterans at the airport.

"I told them I didn't have any civilian clothes to put on; the first one to touch me and/or my uniform, I'd kill them," said Mr. Critell. "I was very proud of what I did. I wasn't happy with the way it turned out, but I was never ashamed of what I was part of."

Last week, Mr. Critell, 56, attended the 105th annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cincinnati.

He listened on Monday as President Bush announced the Pentagon would withdraw 60,000 to 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia over the next decade, in what the President said would create a more flexible military that is better positioned to fight terrorism.

Mr. Critell listened on Wednesday as Mr. Kerry attacked the plan.

"The President's vaguely stated plan does not strengthen our hand in the war on terror, and in no way relieves the strain on our overextended military personnel because it does not even begin until 2006 and it takes 10 years to achieve. And this hastily announced plan raises more doubts about our intentions and our commitments than it provides answers," Mr. Kerry said.

Anna Besse, a retired office worker who lives in Waterville, read those words in The Blade the next day. She said on Aug. 1, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Kerry about the future of American troops.

Mr. Kerry replied: "I will have significant enormous reduction in the level of troops. We will probably have a continued presence of some kind, certainly in the region if the diplomacy that I believe can be put in place can work. I think we can significantly change the deployment of troops not just there but elsewhere in the world. In the Korean peninsula, in Europe perhaps. There are great possibilities open to us."

"I thought somebody might remember that conversation," said Ms. Besse, and the Bush campaign did - putting out a press release a day after the speech.

In contrast to many of the World War II and Korean War veterans who said last week they are backing Mr. Bush, Mr. Critell was among the Vietnam War vets searching their souls.

Mr. Critell said he hasn't decided who will get his vote.

"I was on some of those very same waters that that man was," said Mr. Critell, referring to Democrat John Kerry. "I have nothing but total respect for the commander in chief and the vice president, but John Kerry is one of mine. I'm going to wait and see. I'm not going to pre-judge anything."

Mr. Critell, who is a commander of a VFW post in the Dayton area and the kitchen manager of a sports bar, said he doesn't know when he'll make a choice, but it could be shortly before Nov. 2.

He said he didn't find it unusual that Republicans would try to make an issue out of Mr. Kerry's wartime service.

"We made heroes out of as many people as we possibly could. I'm not going to minimize what the man did or what he didn't do. The man was there. If the higher-ups deemed that he deserves these ribbons and these medals, then so be it. I would never question anything that anybody earned or deserved," Mr. Critell said.

He also said he's not troubled that Mr. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard instead of seeing combat in Vietnam.

"I grew up in a little town outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I played football against Dan Quayle. He enlisted in the National Guard because he wanted to get into politics. He was chastised for this.

"George Bush's father was in politics - congressman, director of the CIA, vice president of the United States. George W. Bush was not going to be drafted. If he wanted military service to enlighten himself on what's it like so he could be a politician, then so be it. I do not begrudge him at all," Mr. Critell said.

Mr. Critell said his childhood in New Haven, Ind., changed from the "safe environment" of the 1950s to one in the mid-1960s with "very little choices."

A few years ago, Mr. Critell worked as a teacher's aide at a middle school in the Dayton area. The class was doing a musical about the 1950s and 1960s, and struggling with why the music of the 1960s was so powerful. He said he asked some of the students what they wanted to do after college and he received the usual responses - doctor, lawyer, business executive, etc.

"I asked them when you are 18 years old and you graduate, and two weeks later you get a letter from the United States government saying you have to take a physical and within a year you're in the Army, how would you feel? And they were appalled. They couldn't comprehend it," Mr. Critell said.

Mr. Critell said his biggest fear is America's resolve as the death toll climbs from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and any future clashes in the war on terrorism.

"If anybody in [the VFW] or out in the John Q. Public thinks that this is going to end overnight or it is going to end if Mr. Bush is re-elected and after those four years, I don't think so. I think this is going to be a long haul."



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