Vietnam veterans is the term used to describe the 3.14 million American men and 7,200 women who served in the Vietnam War (1954-1975). These numbers include not only soldiers who were active in combat but also the nurses who served at military hospitals tending to the wounded.
On coming home, many of the Vietnam veterans managed to adapt successfully and to build healthy, normal lives, while others had trouble adjusting to civilian life. One explanation for this was thought to be the sudden change of environment. In contrast to previous conflicts, when soldiers had weeks to be discharged and to return to their homes, many soldiers who served in Vietnam came home after a two-day journey, without having enough time to adjust.
Another challenge for these service men and women was the severe physical traumas suffered by many. The Vietnam War was characterized by a higher ratio of "wounded-to-killed" soldiers than any preceding war. In addition, the faster evacuation of those wounded from battlefields and new developments in medicine resulted in more soldiers surviving injuries when in the past they would have died. More veterans returned with severe injuries, such as amputated limbs and paralysis. Drug abuse was another problem which affected the veterans as nany of the soldiers had become addicted to drugs in Vietnam, where substances like marijuana, opium and heroin were cheap and easy to find.
The majority of soldiers who had served in Vietnam came from low to middle-income, working-class households and they could not afford private health care services in the United States. When they returned home they were forced to rely on public hospitals. The Veterans Administration (VA), the agency responsible for providing care to veterans, was accused of failing to secure the necessary quality of service amid concerns that the veterans were being treated in dirty hospitals.
Another major problem facing the Vietnam veterans on their return home was the anti-war movement. Campaigners did not welcome the troops home and blamed them for the war. The anti-war movement also highlighted the social and economic divisions among the American population, as most of the advocates of anti-war views were college graduates from wealthy families. Many of these people had managed to escape participating in the Vietnam War due to their financial status and the ability to enter college, a chance that was not given to most of the soldiers.
The relation between the veterans and the anti-war movement was not purely one of opposition. In 1967, a group of veterans established Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), which argued against the war as being unjust and unnecessary. In the 1970s, when disagreements within the anti-war movement were starting to appear, VVAW became one of the most important anti-war forces. The group was led for some time by John Kerry (b.1943), a veteran who later became a US senator.
Simply earning money enough money to live on was a big problem for the veterans. Following World War II (1939-1945), the government had established a benefit program for veterans that not only covered their living expenses but also provided them with college tuition. However, many argued that the government had spent too much money on the war and it was far less generous with the Vietnam veterans, who were offered USD 200 a month. Around 250,000 Vietnam veterans were unable to find jobs when their military service ended. Some of them turned to crime or drugs to earn money. About 25 percent of veterans were arrested on criminal charges within 10 years of their return to the United States.
Psychological problems experienced by the veterans included depression, flashbacks and nightmares. Doctors would eventually name this set of symptoms as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS), or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Veterans Administration did not recognize the existence of PTSS until 1979, long after the last soldiers had returned from Vietnam.
Studies have shown that as many as 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSS, with many thousands more suffering from the condition although they were not diagnosed. These severe mental problems had added to physical pain and many Vietnam veterans ended their own lives. Some experts estimate that the number of veterans who committed suicide after returning home was as high as 58,000. In the 1980s, public sentiment toward the veterans started to improve. In 1984, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall opened in Washington, recognizing the sacrifice of the fallen.