Magazine article VFW Magazine

Vietnam Vets Turned the Corner Years Ago

Magazine article VFW Magazine

Vietnam Vets Turned the Corner Years Ago

Article excerpt

A quarter century has passed since the last GI from Vietnam became a veteran. Like the great majority of their predecessors, they have fared well. But many had to overcome some major hurdles.

DEROS (Date Eligible to Return from Overseas) is what every Vietnam vet remembers as his personal goal. Surviving for 365 days was a victory in itself for grunts in the bush. When the time neared, "short-timer's fever" appeared mysteriously. With no decompression time allowed, a GI was most often whisked aboard the "Freedom Bird" back to "The World" in just 48 hours.

For many of the 2.6 million veterans of Vietnam, though, the real trip home was only beginning when they landed on the tarmac in California or Washington.

Despite the passage of time, there are some aspects of the Vietnam War that will never be forgotten until the last participant dies. This is simply one war that engendered too much bitterness.

Myths die hard, especially when they are self-serving. Not surprisingly, the notion that those who served and died in Vietnam were from the lowest rungs of society persists today in certain circles.

The typical young American sent to Vietnam was from the working class/lower middle class, had a high school diploma, was a volunteer and was white. Black and Hispanic Americans, of course, served fully in proportion to their numbers.

The attitudes of the troops reflected the society that sent them there. In the early years, subtle sentiments of anti-communism were evident. This was a crusade widely accepted in 1950s America.

But like veterans of all wars, they encountered the realities of combat and discovered that ideology does not sustain one under such circumstances. As one veteran remarked, "Our sense of motivation was a buddy system: `we were in this and nobody cares, but at least we can care about each other."'

`Left Holding the Bag'

That sense of caring centered on the casualties, which were concentrated among a small percentage of the forces engaged. Some estimates place the number of GIs who served in the combat arms at only 22.2%. Two-war infantry vet Lucian K. Truscott III figured 84% of the killed in action in Vietnam were infantrymen.

As far as critiques of the socio-economic status of the dead are concerned, most miss the mark because they are based on race. Christian Appy in Working-Class War put his finger on the real inequity: "Rural and small-town America may have lost more men in Vietnam, proportionately, than did even central cities and working-class suburbs:' During the 1960s, only 2% of Americans lived in towns of fewer than 1,000 people, yet 8% of the dead came from places that size.

Regardless of their origins, a significant number of Americans were left with lasting scars. One estimate placed the proportion of physically and psychologically disabled GIs at 12%. About 75,000 were severely wounded. Some 6,698 incurred loss of limbs and 10,839 the loss of use of limbs. The rate of multiple amputation was 18.5% for Vietnam versus 5.6% for the wounded during WWII.

Of the nearly 24,000 totally disabled Vietnam vets, more than half were psychiatric or neurological. Richard Gabriel, author of No More Heroes, says 32,500 GIs were admitted to military medical facilities for psychiatric reasons-12.6% of those actually in combat (he uses 280,000 as a base figure.) Incidentally, this rate is far below that of other 20th century wars.

Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, himself a triple amputee, capsulized the feelings of at least some amputees 25 years ago: "To the devastating psychological effect of getting maimed, paralyzed or in some way unable to re-enter American life as you left it, is added the psychological weight that it may not have been worth it; that the war may have been a cruel hoax, an American tragedy that left a small minority of young American males holding the bag."

Battling for Benefits

That small minority Cleland spoke of would directly feel the brunt of budget cuts affecting hospital care and disability compensation in the post-war period. …

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