Have you heard this one? “How many Vietnam veterans does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: (screamed angrily) “Unless you were there, you can’t ever know!”
Vietnam veterans have a reputation for being emotionally unstable; many are addicts, and lots are homeless. Of course this reputation does not apply to all, but it is widespread.
I believe I know why.
The Vietnam War was different than any war in the history of our country. Oh, we have fought other wars in the jungle. And we fought in Asia twice before Vietnam. And as in every war, bombs and bullets kill young men, rain and dirt make mud, and “Dear John” letters are common.
But Vietnam was different because it is the only war in the history of our country where the general population despised our soldiers in uniform.
It is the only war where young men who returned broken and damaged were not welcomed home. There were no yellow ribbons. No parades.
These days everyone declares, “I have always supported our troops.” But we know better, don’t we? We know how we were received upon return.
I remember trying to hitch a ride back to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, standing on the side of the road in uniform. I was shocked that almost every car that passed had someone give me the finger. Why? I wondered. I was just asking for a ride.
Suddenly one driver got especially aggressive and drove directly toward me at 60 mph. He swerved at the last second, but not before I had to jump into a ditch and get mud all over my uniform.
Upon return, the sergeant looked at me and yelled that I should not have left the base in uniform. “That’s asking for a fight,” he yelled. So for the rest of my hitch, I avoided it.
And when I came home, my parents told me to take off the uniform before we went to visit family. A few days later, Mama sent it, along with all my ribbons and medals, to the Goodwill.
I recall I attended a conference in 2004 where the director of a Veterans Affairs hospital in the Southeast told the audience that they had received a mandate from on high that “We are not going to treat the Iraq veterans the way we treated the Vietnam veterans.” I wanted to stand up and cheer that at last someone admitted it.
Oh, things are better now. All veterans get the assistance and honor they deserve. But it took 25 years. During that time the Vietnam vets fought their nightmares, licked their wounds and kept a gun under their pillow. It felt like no one appreciated our sacrifice.
Imagine being a young graduate on your first job when your country drafts you, teaches you to use a gun, then sends you to the other side of the world where you see horrors that will stay with you a lifetime. And then you survive and come home, and everyone despises you for serving your country. Wouldn’t you have emotional problems, too?