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Legionnaires Discuss Terrorism - 2001-11-14

In the river town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, men of the American Legion gathered with some of their wives over breakfast recently to hear from the veterans' organization's national commander. Richard Santos is making the rounds of posts, talking about the Legion's role in the country's war against terrorism.

The men and women are mostly in their sixties, seventies and eighties since the bulk of this post's most active members served in World War II and Korea. They met in an appropriate setting. It's the Battlefield Inn, a motel next to Vicksburg Military Park, where monuments and gravestones mark the siege of this southern city during the American Civil War of the 1860s. All around the room are paintings depicting Civil War battles and Confederate generals. Little, plastic American flags adorned every table.

Before breakfast of sausage and eggs and grits, seventy or so vets, about half white, half African-American, dispensed with old war stories to talk about the terrorist threat to the nation.

P.J. Montalbano remarked about the new, worrisome world. "This is even worse than the Civil War in my opinion," he said. "I mean, you got a foe, and you don't know who he is. In the Civil War, you had brother fightin' brother. But I mean here, he could be sittin' right across the table from you, and you wouldn't know it."

Not likely across these tables, however, where the elderly vets, including Herman Jackson, curse the nation's newest enemies.

Herman Jackson: "I feel like all of us are willing to put up a fight."

Ted Landphair: "You'd look mighty snappy in your uniform right now."

Herman Jackson: "Thank you. I'm ready to go back if I have to."

Dan Butler, a retired barber who served in World War II and in Korea, worries that there might never be an end to the war on terrorism. "I just can't see winnin', hardly," he said. "And I certainly can't see losin'. It's just a helluva [terrible] thing to be in, looks like what we're getting' into. But I'm for revenge, I guarantee you."

Rusty Price, Louis Nickels, and Jesse Vaughans were quick to agree.

Rusty Price: "Somebody else interviewed me not long ago - the newspaper in Vicksburg. I said, 'Go on over there and clean 'em out. Get it over with.'"

Ted Landphair: "You think it's possible to catch these people?"

Rusty Price: "Certainly. They'll get 'em. Eventually they'll get 'em, one way or another."

Louis Nickels: "These people think they have dug in over there, but the Japanese had the same opinion. We cleaned them out, and I think we cleaned these people out. I'm all for it."

Jesse Vaughans: "Nobody would come on an attack like that [on September 11] and kill a lot of innocent people except coward people. You know, a coward will shoot you in the back. And that's what they is. What happened in New York, it just let me know that our homeland could be bombed, as well as other places. That's why I always believed in takin' the war to them, because the children and civilians suffer in a war-torn country."

As high-school military cadets presented the U.S. and Legion flag, the men and women rose from their chairs and bowed their heads in prayer.

We ask you, Lord, to look at the foreign land and those who are on the battlefield, strugglin' in the name of this great nation.

In his speech, Legion National Commander Santos asked the men and women from Vicksburg, Yazoo City, Natchez, and other Mississippi towns to support a scholarship program for the children of U.S. service men and women killed on September 11 and in days to come in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afterward, Mr. Santos, who is an insurance inspector in Maryland, stepped out onto the motel patio. He said he is pleased to see prominent patriotic displays everywhere he goes.

Richard Santos: "It's like finding a good old suit in the closet. All of a sudden patriotism is now back in fashion. It's a bonding agent, it brings us all together, and it really is great to see."

Ted Landphair: "In addition to firefighters, police, and rescue workers, military workers are getting additional respect right now, wouldn't you say?"

Richard Santos: "Yes. I think that is heightened by the number of reserve and National Guard members that are now utilized in the total force. Now we're taking a lot of men and women out of the community who were there 365 days a year, and all of a sudden they're gone for 180 days. So now I think it's more of a personal attachment by the communities to the people in the military than they had before."

Ted Landphair: "As you remember September 11 and the aftermath, what's been the effect on you?

Richard Santos: "It really brought what is occurring overseas maybe out and immediately in front of us instead of just on the front page of a newspaper. It's made me a little more cognizant of what's going on about us and how America responds to foreign policy and how it responds now militarily."

The American Legion post in Vicksburg recently lost its last two vets from World War I. As they said their good-byes, the elderly men and women took pains to say, "You take care of yourself." It was a message that seemed to fit the mood of the country as well.