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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 sent to fight it.

The high emotion of the week also arose from the relief of being with other Vietnam veterans. They had seen many of the same horrors; they were dogged by similar nightmares; they knew about the strange joys of war. One friend of mine, a former Marine, talked about the sense of power he felt in Vietnam whenever he looked through a rifle sight, and about the delicious release of firefights, when he finally had a chance to kill the enemy who’d been picking off his friends. “But,” he said, “you couldn’t come home and tell people, ‘Boy, it was great, I shot at someone.”’ During the Salute, I often heard similar sentiments, although they were left out of the reports I saw in the press. There was bragging, as at any gathering of ex-soldiers; but there was also the sense of being part of an insecure and far-flung community that no longer had to hide.

The first veteran I met who questioned the prevailing spirit was a black man sitting in a wheelchair outside the room at the Sheraton Washington Hotel where one could register in the hope of finding others from one’s units. Billy Denby had been in Vietnam with the First Air Cavalry in 1971, when a rocket blew off both his legs below the knee. He was looking for a buddy known as “Wood-stock,” whose real name he had forgotten. The last he heard, Woodstock had been badly wounded, but Denby had no way of finding out whether he was dead or alive, so he was sitting in the hotel hoping that Woodstock would appear, and that they would recognize each other.

Denby said the Memorial was fine for everyone who had lost someone in Vietnam, but he added, “It don’t mean a damn thing to the guys who still need help.” Three years ago, Denby worked for the state of Maryland in a federally funded program to find jobs for veterans. Part of the program was a six-month training course for telephone installers. Out of more than one hundred people who applied, thirty were accepted for the training. “And out of those thirty, maybe five got jobs,” Denby said. “Now, I thought that was bullshit. I thought more than five could have been hired.” He once sent a vet in a wheelchair to an employer who wanted to hire a handicapped person because of tax incentives. Though the veteran scored high on the tests he was given, he was not hired. Denby called to ask why. The employer said, “I was looking at TV the other night and I saw some Vietnam veterans who were on drugs. They were pretty unstable. I don’t want somebody like that in my factory.”

What struck me about Denby was less his anger than how isolated he seemed. Although Vietnam Veterans of America sponsored panel discussions on Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress at which Veterans Administration officials were denounced, those were the only such events on the schedule. Otherwise the veterans seemed determined not to make a fuss, not to be seen as protesters or crybabies. Having only in the past two years won any measure of public sympathy, they may have felt reluctant to risk it at their big moment.

Unfortunately for them, the public’s more friendly attitude has coincided with the Reagan administration, the recession, and the budget squeeze. Shortly after Reagan took office, David Stockman proposed doing away with the network of storefront centers that provide counseling for Vietnam veterans—centers that Congress funded only in 1979, after five years of rejecting the idea. In this case, Congress refused to go along with Stockman, the centers were saved, and in fact have expanded by 50 percent. But other, less noticeable, cuts were made. For example, in 1980 there were social service agencies in twelve large cities that concentrated on upgrading bad discharges and finding jobs for veterans; today only two are left, in New York and Seattle.

The pressures on programs for Vietnam veterans are not only fiscal: some of the worst problems of the veterans are maddeningly difficult to define, measure, and treat. Agent Orange is the most dramatic example. Thousands of veterans with serious illnesses are convinced they are suffering because of exposure to dioxin, the deadly chemical contained in herbicides sprayed in Vietnam. Some 14,000 have filed claims with the VA saying they were harmed by Agent Orange and, according to veterans groups, many more would do so if they felt they could get a fair hearing. Their patterns of symptoms are strikingly similar, often including cancer and deformed or stillborn children. However, all the symptoms have many other possible causes. For years the VA insisted they had nothing to do with Agent Orange, and denied medical treatment and disability claims based on exposure.

Finally, in 1979, Congress ordered the VA to conduct studies and give thorough physical examinations to veterans with ailments linked to Agent Orange, and in 1981 the VA was authorized to give hospital care for such illnesses. Still the VA seemed indifferent. In October, 1982, the General Accounting Office released a report criticizing the VA’s physical examinations for Agent Orange as inadequate and its records of them as unreliable. The question of whether the ailments are “service-connected,” thereby entitling the veterans and their families to compensation, still awaits scientific proof. Some fifty federal studies related to Agent Orange are in progress, but the major VA study ordered by Congress three years ago has not yet even been designed. Results will not be in before the end of the decade and may well be inconclusive even then.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is almost as complicated as Agent Orange poisoning, though at least there is professional agreement that it exists. In 1980 the American Psychiatric Association listed PTSD in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition as an emotional disorder that may appear after any traumatic event, including combat. Among the symptoms are emotional numbness and frequent replaying of the event in vivid flashbacks or nightmares. PTSD is nothing new, of course; in World War I it was called “shell shock,” and in World War II, “battle fatigue.” But for Vietnam veterans the destructive effects seem to have been intensified and prolonged, as might be expected after a war many of them saw as pointless and unpopular, and after many were treated as failures or pariahs when they returned home.

Moreover, because of discriminatory draft laws, most Vietnam veterans came from relatively poor families, and found themselves facing the economic decline of the early 1970s. Feeling exploited and betrayed by their countrymen, and denied the chance to recover through satisfying work, some veterans angrily retreated into themselves. They paid a high price for it. The major VA study of Vietnam veterans, entitled Legacies of Vietnam and released in 1981,1 concluded that Vietnam veterans had not progressed as far in education or jobs as their nonveteran counterparts, and that Vietnam service was a significant factor. Nearly twice as many Vietnam veterans had continuing medical complaints as did contemporary veterans who did not serve in Vietnam, and more than twice as many Vietnam veterans reported difficulties with drinking or drugs. Twenty-four percent of Vietnam veterans who were in heavy combat were subsequently arrested for criminal offenses, compared to 17 percent of other veterans and 14 percent of nonveterans. Black Vietnam veterans were unemployed twice as often, and for twice as long, as black veterans who were not in Vietnam. A study sponsored in 1979 by Disabled American Veterans showed high rates of suicide and divorce for Vietnam veterans.2

The problem in treating PTSD is that except in its most extreme forms, the symptoms are often those of everyday neuroses. The veteran himself may have no idea of their origin. This has allowed many VA hospitals to turn away Vietnam veterans with severe emotional troubles on the grounds that they were not service-connected. It was not until 1980 that the VA recognized PTSD as a condition requiring specialized treatment, and by that time it was too late for veterans whose lives had suffered irreparable harm. The VA still is not adequately equipped to locate and treat the 500,000 to 700,000 Vietnam veterans that its own researchers estimate may need professional help. In 1981, Senator Larry Pressler, a Vietnam veteran, introduced a bill that, among other reforms, would have enabled the VA to hire a larger staff of mental health workers and train them specifically to deal with PTSD reactions. Pressler also proposed to allow veterans leery of the VA to seek private therapy for PTSD and bill the agency. These provisions of the bill died in committee.

Less sensational than Agent Orange and PTSD are such issues as the extension of the time limit for Vietnam veterans to use the GI Bill. In 1966, President Johnson reluctantly signed a GI Bill for those who served during the Vietnam War. Unlike the World War II bill, which paid for tuition, books, fees, and a monthly stipend, the Vietnam bill paid only a stipend—and the amount, $100 a month, was actually less than what Korean veterans received in the mid-1950s. This meant that when most Vietnam veterans left the service there was little incentive to use the GI Bill, and few did. In 1974 Congress improved the benefits. But the bill still did not cover tuition, and the stipends were barely enough to support a single person, let alone someone with a family. As a result, few veterans attended private colleges, and it was largely those living in states with low-cost public education who could afford to go to college at all. The VA boasts that GI Bill participation rates are much higher for Vietnam-era veterans than for veterans of World War II or Korea, but the agency has no figures for the number of Vietnam veterans who actually finished their education, and it is certain that many dropped out because of financial pressures. The ten-year cutoff date means that almost all Vietnam veterans who did not make it through school the first time are now ineligible for the GI Bill. Yet Congress time and again has refused to extend the bill. In 1982 the House ignored a proposal by Congressman Harold Ford to lengthen the eligibility period to twenty years after discharge.

Another problem that infuriates many veterans but has attracted little attention elsewhere is the prohibition against judicial review of Veterans Administration rulings. Every year the VA deals with some ten million claims for benefits, through a system that is almost immune from challenge, except by Congress. VA decisions on questions of fact, or on interpretation of its own regulations in individual cases, can be appealed within the VA but cannot be reviewed by any court. To make matters worse, a statute dating from the Civil War forbids payment of more than $10 to a lawyer representing a veteran in a benefit case. This was originally meant to protect veterans from unscrupulous lawyers, but it now effectively rules out legal assistance.

The agency’s power is extraordinary, since decisions regarding Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income, and many other benefit programs are subject to judicial review. The VA admits that more veterans would win their appeals if judicial review were possible, but argues nevertheless that it would hurt the veterans because it would be cumbersome. This does not convince the many veterans who have been frustrated in their dealings with the unwieldy and capricious VA bureaucracy. In 1979 and in 1982 the Senate passed bills that would have permitted judicial review and eliminated the $10 ceiling on attorney’s fees. The bills never emerged from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The aversion to politics during the Salute extended to the politics of the war itself. The official theme of the parade, “Marching Along Together Again,” was notable for its ambiguity. One could take it to mean that the veterans who had come to Washington were marching together, which was obviously true; or that the country was reconciled with its veterans, which was perhaps true; or that the country itself was reunited after the trauma of Vietnam, which seemed to be part of the wishful thinking of the event. The organizers of the parade decreed that it be nonpolitical, and it was, except for a tiny contingent of dissidents at the tail end who chanted, “Hell, no, our sons won’t go.”

At the dedication of the Memorial, most speakers limited themselves to remarks about those who “answered the nation’s call” and “made the ultimate sacrifice.” The greatest applause came when a woman whose son had been killed said that Vietnam must teach us two lessons: that the United States should never again enter a war unless the country is united behind it; and that when we do go in, we should go in to win. Although her tone suggested that we should have united and won in Vietnam, she did not say so. Nearly all the veterans I talked to insisted that they could have won if only the government “had let us do the job”; but they showed no strong conviction that we should have won. In fact, not one speaker openly praised the US involvement in Vietnam. In the atmosphere of the Salute, that would have seemed too disturbing, too divisive.

Only two speakers—Senator John Warner and Brigadier General George Price—made brief reference to the veterans’ current difficulties. Not one high-ranking Reagan administration official showed up. The president spent the day in Chicago at a memorial service for his wife’s father, who had died three months earlier.

Press coverage of the Salute was emotional and sympathetic, and like the event itself reluctant to look beyond the feelings of the moment. That was to be expected from television. But the reports in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Newsweek, and especially the numerous stories over five days in the Washington Post, mostly kept to the upbeat theme of “Welcome home.” They focused on veterans weeping, being reunited with buddies, no longer feeling alienated. The impression was that the bad time was coming to an end. Only Time magazine gave much space to the concrete programs veterans may require, ending its article with a reference to the Bonus Army of 1932 and a quote from a Vietnam veteran who said, “Americans may be changing their feeling about vets, but the change in mood is not going to affect the vets until people put money where their mouths are.”

The friendly articles would make it easier to lobby for veterans in Washington, I was told on the way back by Jim Hebron, a former Marine who had fought at Khe Sanh and now is one of the directors of a New York State commission on dioxin. He expected that veterans’ representatives might now get more attention from congressional aides. Bob Ptachik, who had been in the infantry and is head of the Brooklyn chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, was less optimistic. He thought the Memorial was the perfect monument for those who came back from the war. “When you go down there and look at it, it’s powerful and moving. But you can drive right by on Constitution Avenue and not even see it.”

  1. 1

    Legacies of Vietnam: Comparative Adjustment of Veterans and Their Peers, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Report Number 14, March 9, 1981. Available from the House Committee, 335 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.

  2. 2

    The Forgotten Warrior Project by Dr. John Wilson (prepared for Disabled American Veterans, PO Box 14301, Cincinnati, Ohio 45214).

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