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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 17:20 GMT
One Vietnam vet's Iraqi mission
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

DeWayne Browning is one of a small number of Americans uniquely qualified to compare the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, having served in both as a helicopter pilot.

Chief Browning made weekly visits to meet Iraqi civilians

With George W Bush visiting Vietnam for the first time this week, the recently retired pilot spoke to the BBC News website about his efforts, second time around, to bring some humanity to the horror of war.

Mr Browning got called up - but not for Vietnam. Ironically, his combat call-up only came in 2004 when he was asked to go to Iraq as a 55-year-old reservist in the California Army National Guard.

Back in 1969, he had pre-empted the draft by signing up for helicopter training, seeing it as a more interesting prospect than the regular army.

Serving in Vietnam with the Americal Division, he flew Huey troop carriers and occasionally Cobra gunships.

He went to Iraq theoretically as a higher staff officer but was soon transporting soldiers on a Black Hawk, the Huey's successor.

And his commanders had another, more unorthodox job for Chief Browning which indirectly led to a humanitarian mission of his own.

'Why?'

A manager of tractor dealerships in civilian life, Mr Browning's business experience led to him being made "field ordering officer" at his base.

He looked me right in the eyes and he said: 'Why did you shoot my brother?'
DeWayne Browning

Given $20-30,000 every month and his own Humvee jeep, he had to get anything from mattresses to computer cartridges, which he would order from Iraqi businessmen outside the base's gate.

One day he and his interpreter noticed a boy aged about five standing there with his mother and father.

When the child said something to him, he bent down beside him:

"He looked me right in the eyes and he said: 'Why did you shoot my brother?'"

DeWayne Browning with wheelchair in Iraq (photo care of same)
Browning's company has delivered 47 wheelchairs to Iraq

It turned out that the boy's 12-year-old brother had been wounded when the vehicle he was in was shot at by a US convoy after it "got a little bit too close and took them by surprise".

Mr Browning escorted the family into the base and they found the brother in hospital, paralysed from the waist down.

Told he would be deformed but that no proper wheelchair was available, Mr Browning phoned his business partner in the US and one was sent over - the first of 47.

Despite his commander's reservations, he also began weekly flights off the base to visit injured Iraqis, ferrying in US medical staff.

As other community projects developed, he would bring ordinary American soldiers with him too so that they could get to meet the local population.

"Most soldiers deployed there never even get to talk to an Iraqi," Mr Browning says.

"I ended up taking more than 50 soldiers from my unit out on these missions. I'll never forget that."

Next stop Vietnam

"The big mistake we made in Vietnam was not understanding the people," the old Huey pilot says.

Browning (left) with co-pilot Vaughn Perkins in Vietnam

In Iraq, he never came under fire but in Vietnam there were some "pretty intense ones":

"Once I actually watched a scout ship being shot down with a machine-gun.

"It rolled over with three people inside and we had to go down and pick them up, negotiating the same 50-calibre and taking a couple of hits before we limped away from the area with everybody aboard."

The Vietnam War, he says, had a "different feel":

"I mean our battalion in Iraq had 60 female soldiers including pilots out of 260 while in Vietnam we had, you know, none.

"In Vietnam you could go to the same bar every night if you wanted to, have a few drinks, play cards, go back, sleep and get up the next morning to fly.

"In Iraq there was no drinking whatsoever."

The technology was different too, of course. He used to write map coordinates with a grease pencil on his Huey windshield, while it was GPS in his Black Hawk.

And in Iraq he could contact home each day by phone or e-mail, whereas he was allowed to make a grand total of two calls home from Vietnam.

Time and understanding

One call he made after hearing his wife had given birth to their first child, and he was allowed two weeks' leave back home.

DeWayne Browning at controls of his Black Hawk in Iraq (photo care of same)
I cannot say if the war in Iraq is justified - I think time and history will answer that for us, as it has in Vietnam
DeWayne Browning

"There was nobody there to greet you back in the US during that war," he says.

"Some people were even concerned about putting on their uniforms."

Coming back from Iraq was very different, he says. Making a fuel stop in Dallas en route to the West Coast, he and his comrades were welcomed home by a crowd of complete strangers who offered them their mobile phones to call home and free lunches.

"Whether or not people agree with the war, the support they have given the soldiers is something special and it's particularly heart-warming for me, an old Vietnam veteran," Mr Browning says.

Back in Paradise, the Californian town where he lives, he has not forgotten his wars though he does not generally talk about them.

Instead, he gives 20-minute presentations at Rotary Clubs where he shows slides of Iraqi children and civilians he met.

"I cannot say if the war in Iraq is justified - I think time and history will answer that for us, as it has in Vietnam," he tells the BBC.

"In Iraq, I was given a rare opportunity to learn about the culture and the people, and an understanding of their heart.

"Time, missions, and who I was in Vietnam, did not allow for that same perspective there."


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