- 14 Oct 08, 03:13 AM GMT
GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA: When Michael Cobb retuned from the Vietnam war in 1968, he had trouble following orders. After witnessing carnage all around him and losing his closest comrades, it was near-impossible for Michael to take instructions from civilians who just didn't understand.
Back home in the US, he'd flitted from job to job. He recognised that his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) made him a difficult character with which to live.
"As a veteran, your life has been threatened so many times," Michael told me. "To come back and have some guy in an office tell you what to do..." He paused. "You think: how dare they. How dare they. But you can't operate like that.
"I take anti-depressants all the time. I wake up in a cold sweat thinking I've killed someone.
"The only people who understand are other veterans. That's why we're all like brothers."
Michael, 61, had found that sense of fraternity in Rolling Thunder, a pressure group of which he was national chairman. Dedicated to supporting and lobbying on behalf of veterans and prisoners of war, it has specialised in mobilising mass protests led by motorbike-riding ex-military personnel.
Artie Muller, 63, another Rolling Thunder officer and Vietnam vet, shot me an inscrutable look from behind his dark glasses. "We're not a motorcycle club," he intoned. "When 500,000 of us show up for a demonstration in Washington, there aren't any clowns or sideshows."
Both Michael and Artie had come through from New Jersey to see their friend John Molloy, who headed up the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition.
They felt that veterans had been ignored by Washington. Michael said he'd spent 23 years fighting the system to claim the benefits he was due before the authorities relented. All three were scathing about politicians who, they felt, were only out for themselves.
You might have expected that they'd be enthusiastic backers of John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate and former prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton.
They were all voting for him, but reluctantly. They had disagreed with his efforts to normalise relations with Vietnam while US personnel who had been reported missing in action remained unaccounted for.
"I've got mixed feelings about Senator McCain," Michael said.
"But we can't have Obama running the country. He doesn't have the experience."
I asked them how they felt about the issues surrounding the election. John, 62, had studied hard after leaving the military and become an investment banker.
But it angered him, he said, that Wall Street had been given a $700m bail-out while ex-service men and women had to struggle to get their dues.
"If it wasn't for the veterans, people wouldn't be free to make money in the first place," he said.
I wanted to know how they felt about Afghanistan and Iraq. John spoke for all of them: he'd worked in the World Trade Center before 9/11, and had lost friends in the attacks.
This had convinced him firmly the conflicts were justified. "You can talk about coming back with PTSD from Vietnam - well, it comes after watching people jump out of those towers, too," he added. The others nodded in agreement.
At a time when the outgoing president's popularity had fallen to an all-time low, they remained staunch supporter of George Bush. He had been rare among politicians, Michael said: Bush had listened to them on veterans and POW issues, spoken to them after demonstrations.
"We gave him one of these vests we're wearing," chuckled Artie, pointing at his leather waistcoat. "He couldn't wait to put it on.
"He doesn't care about being popular, he just wants to do the right thing."
I asked if I could take their photograph. They instinctively wrapped their arms around each other's shoulders.
Theirs was a bond forged by a common experience. A bond that someone like I, never having witnessed the same hardships and traumas, shouldn't pretend to understand.
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