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Military career spans Vietnam and Iraq

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GINA R. HEINE
May 25, 2008
— If you sit next to William Maves at a ballgame, remove your hat during the national anthem.

Or he’ll do it for you.


“I’m kind of a sentimental guy, a patriotic guy,” he said.


He jokes how his wife doesn’t want to sit next to him at games, or how he insists the kids next to him remove their hats.


“If they don’t take their cap off, I do it for them,” he said. “I’m that kind of guy.”


For good reason.


Two wars are the bookends for his military career.


Maves waded through the elephant grass of Vietnam’s northern highlands and more than 30 years later sweated in the deserts of Iraq.


Maves, 59, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 and served in Vietnam before taking a 10-year break from the military. Later, as a member of the National Guard, he served a tour in Iraq, landing there on Christmas Eve 2004.


Maves retired as a platoon sergeant first class in 2006 with more than 30 years of military service.


This weekend, you might find him in Washington, D.C. wandering through Arlington National Cemetery or at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.


“I get a kick out of it,” he said of the veterans’ cemetery. “I can spend all day and walk around, look at the graves and try and picture the history part of it, what part they played.”


For Memorial Day 2004, Maves and his sister took their parents—both World War II veterans—to Washington for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial.


This year’s journey to Washington began a couple weeks ago when Maves and four friends set off on their Harleys. They started in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and this weekend are in Washington taking part in the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally honoring prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.


“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Maves said.


Lasting effects

After serving in two wars separated by more than 30 years, Maves is concerned about the lasting physical and psychological effects on veterans.


His experience in Vietnam helped him in Iraq—he knew what to expect, what could happen and the worst-case scenarios.


“The big thing with me is that I got to age past what I ever thought I’d live to in Vietnam,” he said. “Long enough to actually see it come full circle again, and then be old enough to appreciate it and know what I was getting into.”


He saw the naivety and curiosity of American soldiers end with deadly results in both wars. In Iraq, his heavy transportation unit hauled materials and equipment back and forth to Kuwait. Roadside bombs make up the highest percentage of troop casualties, he said.


“We had the worse job in the world,” he said.


IEDs can be hidden in anything, even a dead dog, and usually are found by people looking at things that look out of place, he said.


In Vietnam, everyone was a sucker for the little Buddha figurines in the villages, he said.


“As soon as they picked it up, a lot of them were booby trapped,” he said.


Treatment at home

The traumatic brain injury Bob Woodruff of ABC News suffered in 2006 from a roadside bomb in Iraq was a godsend for the military because it raised awareness about brain injuries soldiers were suffering, he said.


The Department of Veterans Affairs has to recognize what returning soldiers are dealing with emotionally and physically and have government funding to address today’s traumatized troops, Maves said.


He’s received timely and fair treatment in Wisconsin, he said, “but there again, it varies from state to state.”


In the Vietnam era, soldiers went from the jungles to home, thousands of them with emotional, physical and mental issues, he said.


The military’s effort to help Iraq veterans re-acclimate to civilian life is good, but people are going to slip through the system, he said.


“There’s injuries to these young troops now that are both visible and invisible,” he said.


The system needs improvement, he said.


“They go in and talk to the shrink … and they’re going to tell them exactly what they want to hear because they just want out of there,” he said. “It’s not doing the job, so you have people coming back with issues.”


Some veterans from Vietnam and Iraq won’t be around to celebrate the next Memorial Day, he said.


“I’ll guarantee it because there’s still the ones out there that are on the cutting edge that are going to take their life before another year rolls around,” he said.


Two wars

How Iraq is compared to Vietnam will depend on how long the war drags out, Maves said.


But anyone with a military background knows there’ll be a long-term troop presence in Iraq, Maves said.


“To what degree and how active they are is another thing,” he said.


While he feels for every soldier and family member that wants the troops home, he wonders if that’s the best answer.


“I don’t know,” he said. “I would say I just bite my tongue and let the generals do what they’re paid to do and the strategists do what they’re paid to do and hopefully it’s for the best interest of our country. I don’t want to second guess them.”


America’s finest

Maves went from Vietnam to his front door in three days after hitchhiking home. He said acceptance and recognition of soldiers is much different than in the 1960s.


“Now, there’s more recognition of the servicemen than there was in the ‘60s, because you had the war protestors,” he said. “(Now) you have young soldiers coming back … right into college, and accepted in college.”


Standards for acceptance into the military have changed since the Vietnam-era draft. But some of Maves’ comrades in Vietnam proved that even drafted men could be exceptional soldiers.


“Both times—both Vietnam and Iraq—I think that there were some of America’s finest,” he said. “I think down deep that the spirit of the person makes the soldier, and I think this country’s lucky that they have the young people that feel the way they do.”


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David Erpenbach knows what it’s like to bury feelings after coming home from war.


After returning from Vietnam, he and his comrades shed their uniforms and didn’t talk about their experience. They buried their feelings.


“We’re trying to get that out, now, and let the new vets know that they don’t have to be ashamed of their service and that there is help available,” said Erpenbach, commander of the VFW Post No. 6905 in Evansville.


He spoke at Evansville’s Memorial Day observance program Monday.


He’s encouraging Iraq War veterans to seek help now, “so they don’t have to go through a lifetime of nightmares and try and get over some of those experiences.”


The suicide rate among Iraq veterans is twice as high or more than other vets, he said.


“It’s such a traumatic thing, and we’re losing too many men and women now that we shouldn’t have to be losing,” he said.


Erpenbach urges people to send a thank-you note to any veteran they know.


“Having been in the service, getting mail—any kind of mail—is important,” he said.


Click here to view a slideshow of area memorials in honor of Memorial Day.

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