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Vietnam vet brings hope, pride to peers

By
GINNY LEE

CHICAGO -- Donald Knauss recalls his return from the Vietnam War as a nightmare, but he sees a new era for his fellow veterans with Billy Ray Cameron taking the helm of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Cameron, 40, a civil defense coordinator from Sanford, N.C., Friday became the first Vietnam War veteran ever to lead the 2-million member organization.

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'I think it's great,' said Knauss. 'Hopefully, it will bring more younger guys in.'

Chester Koch, a 92-year-old World War I veteran, said the VFW needs young blood and the group's 400,000 Vietnam veterans need someone they can relate to.

'There are an awful lot of Vietnam vets that don't trust the older veterans groups,' Koch said. 'But with Billy Ray, I think we're going to find the younger families responding more favorably to the men in service.'

Cameron wears a MIA-POW bracelet engraved with the name of Sgt. Darrell Johnson, who is listed as missing in action. The bracelet reminds Cameron, a Marine Corps corporal from 1967-1969, and others that many of the 3 million Vietnam veterans came home feeling that they left part of themselves behind.

'(Johnson's) father just died last month never knowing what happened to his son,' Cameron said.

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Cameron takes the helm of a group some consider a part of the Old Guard with little tolerance for liberal, antiwar rhetoric. But he knows both sides.

'There's always a rift,' he said of the relationship between the VFW and many veterans who shy away from it. 'We've probably had members drop out because of' some VFW policies.

But, he said, the VFW's efforts help all 28.3 million veterans in the country, not just the 2 million who joined the group.

Cameron has a rather sweeping goal for the organization: 'Our main objective is to go out of business. We've gone through wars. We know what it is.'

But he says he will have a lot to do in the meantime -- the time in which scores of veterans still need medical care, employment and protection of their rights and benefits.

'The war had divided the country, so there were a lot of bad experiences,' he said. 'There were problems after the war, especially employment.'

Cameron speaks from experience, although he was lucky enough to find work. 'The only job I could get was as a car salesman,' he said.

Cameron likes to recall the positive things that occurred in Vietnam -- such as Vietnamese citizens far from combat receiving medical care for the first time.

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'You can either be bitter or positive,' he said. 'It's like that old story of the man who said, 'I had no shoes and complained until I met a man who had no feet.' It could have been worse.

The most severe of Cameron's war scars is damage to his legs, the result of hitting a mine in combat in March 1968.

After little more than a year, he had to give up his job as a car salesman. Doctors told him that he couldn't stand on concrete for long periods of time.

'It pretty well messed me up -- in and out of hospitals for a year.'

Some friends in Lee County, N.C., helped him get the job he has held since 1972.

Cameron sees 1982 as the turning point for vets of his era. With the dedication in Washington, D.C. of the Vietnam Memorial to the 50,000 Americans killed in the war, veterans finally got the respect they deserve, he said.

'The American people finally said, 'Welcome home and thanks for what you've done.''

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