Parliament approved Sept. 24 a draft plan to send 40 Lithuanian soldiers to Afghanistan to join the U.S.-led war against terrorism, angering veterans from the Soviet-Afghan war who claim they do not receive proper social benefits for their service.
According to the draft, a platoon of 40 special intelligence troops from the Kaunas Vytautas the Great Battalion would be sent to Afghanistan at a cost of about 1 million litas (290,000 euros).
Parliament has already approved sending military physicians to a United Nations-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
"A year ago, we offered assistance to the United States. Now is the right time to take the following step and confirm that we are trustworthy partners who fulfill our promises," said Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius.
But Lithuanians who were conscripted into the Soviet Union's ill-fated Afghan war from 1979 to 1989 were furious at the draft.
"Afghan war veterans and their families feel stranded with all their troubles and problems. A county that ignores its own veterans should not be sending new soldiers into the country," read a statement issued by the Afghan War Veterans' Organization.
More than 100 Lithuanians died in the first Afghan war and another 100 were injured, the organization said. Some 5,000 fought in total.
Since the end of that war, those who returned have been neglected, first in the dying days of the Soviet Union and then by the Lithuanian government, said Social Democrat MP and Afghan war veteran Rimantas Ruzas.
Veterans, he said, want military pensions and other social benefits similar to those enjoyed by World War II veterans or those awarded to Lithuanians forced to clean up at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
"Afghanistan war veterans should have social guarantees," said Ruzas, who fought from 1982 to 1984. "Lithuania is just overdoing its usual show of loyalty to Washington. Sending medics would be enough to demonstrate our solidarity with NATO."
Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, badly want to join NATO, and all three expect invitations at the alliance's Prague summit in November.
Afghan war vets still suffer from psychological trauma and remain poorly integrated in Lithuanian society, Ruzas said.
The 1 million litas the Parliament wants to spend on sending troops would be better spent on social benefits for veterans, he said.
Afghan war veteran Vytas Luksys agrees.
"We did not object to sending Lithuanian peacekeepers to the former Yugoslavia because it was necessary to stop the bloodshed there, but Afghanistan has a symbolic meaning for us," he said. "We were in a strange situation, sent by force from one occupied country to another to fight against freedom-fighters."
Ruzas said, "One day, a military plane landed in the desert and we were told that we were in Afghanistan now. Even the Afghan rebels who captured some Lithuanians made a distinction between Lithuanians and Russians sent to Pakistani prisons. They knew Lithuania was Soviet-occupied, too."
Afghan veterans, Ruzas said, were among the most dedicated independence fighters, especially because their experience in the war removed any doubts about the nature of the Soviet regime.
"When Soviet troops were expected to attack the Parliament in 1991, we were there in the Parliament building, day and night, keeping our guns ready to defend it."
The Parliament is expected to return to the draft for sending troops in the coming weeks.
Ruzas aside, most of his ruling Social Democratic party supports the move. Veteran Luksys said post-independence governments of all political persuasions had been ignoring the veterans' concerns.
"In this sense, we are uniting Lithuania's left-wing and right-wing forces," he said.