LI vets discuss Iraq, Afghanistan turmoil at Vietnam commemoration

James Henke, of Sound Beach, speaks about the sacrifices soldiers make during war. As a member of a 134-man unit that was virtually wiped out during a 1967 rice paddy ambush in Vietnam that was covered in Newsday 47 years ago, he remembers that somber anniversary in Sound Beach on Thursday, June 19, 2014.(Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

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Growing unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan is stirring powerful emotions in Long Island's Vietnam veterans, who saw their own efforts undone following a polarizing war.

Anger and frustration were evident at a Sound Beach ceremony commemorating a 1967 Vietnam War battle in which dozens of American soldiers were killed.

James Henke, who survived that battle and organized the Thursday ceremony, said seeing Iraq plunge into civil war, with insurgents threatening to topple the government, brings back bitter memories of the 1975 fall of Saigon.

"In Vietnam, the same thing happened," said Henke, 69, of Sound Beach. "The South Vietnamese lost everything we had helped them gain, and the same things happened here. The Iraqis dropped their weapons and ran."

In 2001, President George W. Bush sent troops to Afghanistan to topple that country's Taliban government after terrorists who trained there initiated the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Less than two years later, Bush sent troops to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, saying his control of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found, posed a danger to the United States.

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More than 6,800 American troops have been killed so far in the two wars, which will cost an estimated $4 trillion to $6 trillion in military spending and care for the wounded, according to a Harvard University study.

American efforts to install stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered major setbacks this month.

In Iraq, al-Qaida-inspired Sunni insurgents, many of them former supporters of Hussein, have taken control of cities and oil refineries and pushed within a few miles of Baghdad. In Afghanistan, the refusal by presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah to accept election results threatens America's nearly 13-year effort to replace Taliban rule with a peaceful democracy.

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President Barack Obama, who withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, is sending about 300 military advisers to help train Iraqi forces and about 275 troops to support the U.S. Embassy and American interests. He remains committed to sharply reducing the 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

The eroding political stability and signs of chaos in the countries also anger veterans who served there.

Roger King, 28, a former Marine lance corporal who was knocked unconscious by a sniper's bullet during one of his two deployments to Iraq, criticized Obama for withdrawing troops before stability was assured.

King also is frustrated that Iraqi soldiers have provided so little resistance, allowing major cities to fall to the insurgents.

"Obviously, the job wasn't done, so we should have stayed there," said King, a house painter and officer with the Sag Harbor Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

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He said of Iraqi troops: "It almost seems like they don't want to fight for what they want, instead of living in fear and terror."

Harry Wilkerson, of Riverhead, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Vietnam, said he's been anguished about the rising unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan since recently visiting a memorial to Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert of Sag Harbor. Theinert, 24, was killed in 2010 on patrol in Afghanistan.

"Seeing this kid's picture just tore me up," said Wilkerson, fighting back tears.

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