“Pow” is the sound of a muffler blast from a past-its-prime car. Suddenly, you’re face down on the sidewalk, biting gritty cement, with one arm outstretched and the other bent firmly against your side. As you lay on the cold winter concrete reaching for a weapon that doesn’t exist, you look up to see two somewhat familiar men in business attire. They are looking down at you with questioning eyes, wondering if you are mentally challenged or uptight — alarmingly so. Your new job as a trainee broker for an investment banking firm is already in jeopardy as you struggle to calm and compose yourself, offering apologies.
This is how you now recall those years, post-Vietnam 1970s. The Wounded Warrior Project, designed to honor and empower wounded soldiers returning home, had yet to be invented. Homecoming receptions for combat warriors, if they took place at all, were notable for what they lacked. There was no “Thank for your service.” No smiles or support. If the folks back home displayed concern, it was fear for their own safety. The American boy trained to fight and kill in foreign wars was returning to civilian life as a grown man — possibly dangerous, addicted to drugs and violently deranged. This is the first phase of your post-combat life: “The social readjustment process for returning Vietnam combat veterans.”
“Oh, my God” is the sound of your wife, holding up her arms in fear and self-defense, anticipating your bursts of violence. Her beloved husband is now transformed into a stranger who suffers from chronic nightmares. You struggle to shake yourself free from dreams of hellish landscapes where you find yourself — and almost lose yourself. Shocked and wide awake, she asks what’s happening and if you’re all right. You have no idea what kind of screams she heard or what actions you may have executed, but you are thankful that upon awakening, you were no longer there, trapped in a hellish nightmare. The woman you care about looks at you in shock, fear and a touch of sympathy as you beg her to relax. You tell her it’s OK, but she’s not so sure. She’s afraid, concerned and unsure about the future. This is Phase Two: “The family readjustment process for returning Vietnam combat veterans.”
Silence is the deafening sound that envelopes you, as you stare at a wall and remember the worst parts of war. The choppers bellowing from above, carrying dead or wounded friends. Blood-splattered children crying for the loss of murdered parents. Explosions, smoke and rounds of fire. It all reminds you that hell exists beyond the world of the dead. You look for a cigarette, a drink, a joint — anything to stop the thoughts. This is life in the 1970s — the TV paints you as a war criminal, not a returning hero. It doesn’t matter if you served to defend or you tried to save lives — you were part of an atrocity, no matter what ideals you nurtured. Who are you and what have you become? Wake up, Marine. This Phase Three: “The personal readjustment for returning Vietnam combat veterans.”
Each war had a message for returning combat vets. After World War II, Americans held out open arms to tell them: We all struggled together, let’s rebuild. The iconic photo of a sailor kissing a young nurse on the cover of Life magazine, the parades in the streets, the patriotic movies — all these symbols of appreciation gave the combat warrior a sense of pride, welcome and understanding.
Then Korea made its mark. Vets were seen as faithful heroes who did their jobs, contained the enemy and established a perimeter that exists to this very day. They were treated with a cosmetic-like measure of compassion. It was not the “Big One,” but it was another battle that called American soldiers to active duty, and our heroes answered the call. Yes, they faced their own inner struggles, but the country’s arms were open and proud.
Fast-forward to the 1970s and Vietnam. Americans shared a day-to-day disdain for not only the conflict of war, but also the political aspects of it. As a country, we had graduated and succumbed to our own uninformed political opinions. TV war dramas, drugs, free love and spoiled kids of the ‘60s dominated the news and opinions. The country was rich and powerful, and couldn’t be bothered by the messy, dirty, bloody aspects of war. It didn’t matter that in one far-eastern land, a government fueled by cruelty and greed was trying to overtake and dominate another. It didn’t matter that innocent people were dying at the hands of tyranny. It was better to be self-righteous and not blame ourselves. But that mindset put the blame on young warriors who were sent to do the job. Vietnam was too far away to understand. The Russians and ballistic missiles were easier to fear. It was a nuclear era, considered to be more modern then it really was. The world was still a place of aggression and barbarism. But the comfortable, spoiled youth — many in academia and falsely led — labeled themselves heroes. They were able to turn the country against the soldiers, especially the Marines, who did the dirty work.
There are too many suicides every day, committed by maladjusted combat vets from all wars. But the trauma of combat and war is magnified by immeasurable exponents when the warrior is scorned, ignored, labeled and forgotten. This is the case of the Vietnam vet. While “Thank you for your service” finally includes them, they still suffer the effects of a nationwide rejection that persisted for too many years. For those veterans who did return home, the scars will not go away. Fifty years later, they deserve a salute to their service, their sacrifice, and their brave response to the call of duty.
• Dominic Certo, author of “Gold in the Coffins” (Harmita Press, 2015), served with the 7th Marines in Vietnam and is an advisory board member of Operation Home Front.
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