Approximately 3.14 million American men and 7,200 American women served in the Vietnam War. It is important to distinguish between popular myths about Vietnam veterans and their actual experiences, both short-term and long-term, after leaving Southeast Asia.
Many veterans described feelings of relief upon leaving Vietnam, mixed with a sense of dissociation from American society when they returned. By the late 1960s, a youth counterculture had transformed American society; some of the young people coming home from Vietnam could not relate to their civilian peers, although others embraced aspects of the counterculture, including its fashions, music, and drugs. Most veterans returned home singly or in small groups; they were not welcomed with parades, but neither, contrary to popular assumptions, were the majority of World War II and Korean War veterans. For wounded and disabled veterans, the homecoming was even more difficult. Veterans' hospitals did not always provide adequate treatment. Returnees were well aware that Americans were divided over the war, with growing numbers opposing it as troop deployments and casualties escalated and reports of atrocities and government deceptions circulated.
Vietnam veterans reported a variety of reactions upon their arrival in the United States: mostly indifference, but also occasional expressions of kindness, appreciation for their service, and hostility. A close examination of the popular perception that veterans had been spat upon by antiwar protesters when returning from Vietnam has revealed that many such reports emerged in the 1980s and 1990s rather than during the conflict, and that it was often supporters of the war who harassed Vietnam veterans protesting the war. Politicians and other war supporters, both during the Vietnam War and even decades later, during the Persian Gulf War (1991), used the image of the Vietnam War veteran being spat upon to discredit antiwar protesters. Some Vietnam veterans also felt that veterans from previous wars did not consider the conflict in Vietnam a legitimate war and so were not supportive of its veterans.
Some soldiers continued in military service after their tours of duty in Vietnam, and others left the armed forces. The adjustment to civilian life could be difficult, especially in a society beset by protests, riots, and radical cultural change, and by growing inflation and unemployment by the early 1970s. Vietnam veterans have often been portrayed as mentally disturbed, drug-addicted misfits permanently damaged by their experiences in war and further scarred by unhappy homecomings; however, the majority made successful transitions into postwar life. Nevertheless, a large number of veterans suffered from physical as well as psychological wounds. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has afflicted 31 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women (most of whom had served as nurses) at some point in their lives. Greater proportions of Hispanic and African-American veterans than European-American veterans experienced PTSD. The disorder had plagued veterans of previous wars but it received more attention following the Vietnam War, making the public more aware of the long-term distress endured by those who serve in war.
In 1967, antiwar veterans founded Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), which was led for a while by John Kerry, whose 2004 presidential campaign stressed his heroism in combat. The organization grew to encompass thousands of veterans from all states, a majority of whom had seen combat. VVAW members considered the war unjust and unnecessary, and opposed the death and maiming of Americans as well as the destruction of Vietnam and its people. Although many war supporters and government officials labeled VVAW members unpatriotic, the participation of veterans bolstered the antiwar movement and probably influenced public opinion on the war.
Decades after the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, the Vietnam veteran remains an enduring symbol of Americans' conflicted feelings about the war. The opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., in 1984 represented a long-awaited public acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by those who served. The controversial wall, which critics decried as a morbid reminder of the war's casualties and divisiveness, has become one of the Washington Mall's most popular monuments. A nearby memorial statue for women veterans, dedicated in 1993, extended recognition to nurses who served in Vietnam yet were often overlooked in the public discourse on the war. In response to accusations that anti-Vietnam War activists had abused veterans, protesters of later wars, such as the Iraq War (2003), made conscious efforts to show support for soldiers and veterans.
Figley, Charles R., and Leventman, Seymour. Strangers at Home: Vietnam Veterans since the War. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1990.
Hunt, Andrew E. The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans against the War. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Kulka, Richard A., et al. Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation: Report of Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1990.
Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Norman, Elizabeth M. Women at War: The Story of Fifty Military Nurses Who Served in Vietnam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Stacewicz, Richard. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans against the War. New York: Twayne, 1997.