The Invisible Veterans

The “National Salute to Vietnam Veterans” in Washington, DC, last November was as remarkable for what did not happen as for what did. The organizers, a committee of veterans, said that it was the “long overdue welcome home” from a grateful nation to its Vietnam soldiers. For five days there were receptions, military band concerts, wreath-layings, unit reunions, an “Entertainers’ Salute,” a candlelight vigil, and, at the end, a parade and the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. What happened, as anyone knows who watched TV reports or read a newspaper at the time, was a powerful outpouring of emotion that allowed some veterans to say they could finally leave the war behind. But what did not happen was serious discussion of the difficulties that still face many of them.

The center of the Salute, of course, was the Memorial. One could not go there without feeling that whatever else took place, the Salute had served an important purpose; the ancient ritual of recalling the dead after a war was made all the more powerful in this case by being so long postponed. The gravestone-like appearance of the monument, the appalling fact of 57,939 names of dead Americans, which were sandblasted on the black granite, and the emotional encounter of veterans and families with “their” names, all combined to produce an atmosphere so charged that the controversy over the design became irrelevant. A man who worked at one of the counseling centers that had been set up in some Washington hotels told me that the veterans he talked to seemed taken aback by their own responses. “Some of these guys have been living with anger as their main emotion for a long time,” he said. “They’re angry they got sent to Vietnam, and angry about how they’ve been treated since they got back. They came here thinking, ‘This is another bummer.’ But there isn’t one who can go over to the Memorial and not be affected. All of a sudden they feel the grief they haven’t allowed themselves for fifteen years.”

What made the Memorial so moving to many of the veterans I talked to was that they saw it as a friendly gesture from the rest of the country. The importance of this to Vietnam veterans can hardly be overstated, for they have been the objects of a disgraceful form of social double jeopardy. First they had the misfortune to find themselves in Vietnam, which often meant simply that they were born poor and obeyed the draft laws. Then they returned to find themselves convenient targets for the country’s frustration, rage, and shame about the war. That a group of veterans had been able to organize the Salute on their own, that a parade of 15,000 men took place, that people held up placards saying, “Thank you, Vietnam Vets”—all that was encouraging to men anxious for any sign that Americans are ready to stop blaming the war on those who were …

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