Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans in American Society

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Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans in American Society

When the American soldiers returned home from World War II in 1945, they were greeted as heroes in the United States. Cities and towns across the country held parades to honor the returning veterans and recognize the sacrifices they had made. But the homecoming was very different for most Vietnam veterans. They came back to find the United States torn apart by debate over the Vietnam War. There were no victory parades or welcome-home rallies. Instead, most Vietnam veterans returned to a society that did not seem to care about them, or that seemed to view them with distrust and anger.

"Men who fought in World War II or Korea might be just as haunted by what they had personally seen and done in combat," Arnold R. Isaacs writes in Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. "But they did not come home, as the Vietnam vets did, to a country torn and full of doubt about why those wars were fought and whether they had been worthwhile. Nor did they return as symbols of a great national failure."

Many of the young men who fought in Vietnam had a great deal of difficulty readjusting to life in the United States. Some struggled to overcome physical injuries, emotional problems, or drug addictions from their time in Vietnam. Others had trouble feeling accepted by their friends and families. Some returning soldiers blamed their situation on the antiwar movement and developed a deep resentment toward antiwar protesters. But many other veterans began to question the war and their own actions in it.

A chilly reception

Some people who opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War treated U.S. soldiers and veterans poorly. They tended to blame American troops for the tragic situation in Vietnam, instead of blaming the government leaders who had sent them there. "Some protesters simply did not make a clear distinction between the war and those who fought it, and they regarded American soldiers as ready and willing killers or ignorant dupes," Christian G. Appy explains in his book Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. In some instances, antiwar protesters reportedly spit on returning veterans and called them baby-killers. Although such incidents were rare, the stories were often repeated among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. These stories added to the soldiers' resentment of the antiwar movement.

Rather than being greeted with anger and hostility, however, most Vietnam veterans received very little reaction when they returned home. They mainly noticed that people seemed uncomfortable around them and did not appear interested in hearing about their wartime experiences. "Society as a whole was certainly unable and unwilling to receive these men with the support and understanding they needed," Appy writes. "The most common experiences of rejection were not explicit acts of hostility but quieter, sometimes more devastating forms of withdrawal, suspicion, and indifference."

John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who later became a U.S. senator, remembered how he felt shortly after returning home from the war: "There I was, a week out of the jungle, flying from San Francisco to New York. I fell asleep and woke up yelling, probably a nightmare. The other passengers moved away from me—a reaction I noticed more and more in the months ahead. The country didn't give a [care] about the guys coming back, or what they'd gone through. The feeling toward them was, 'Stay away—don't contaminate us with whatever you've brought back from Vietnam.'" This type of reaction made many veterans feel alone and isolated from the rest of American society.

Even people who supported American military involvement in Vietnam did not always support the returning veterans. Some Vietnam veterans thought that Americans who had fought in earlier wars might be more helpful than other people. After all, veterans of World War II (1939–45) and the Korean War (1950–53) understood what combat was like. But many veterans of earlier wars seemed to look down on Vietnam veterans because they did not win the Vietnam War.

Confronted with reactions of indifference, fear, or anger, some veterans kept their wartime experiences to themselves. They refused to discuss Vietnam with anyone but other veterans, because no one else seemed to understand or care. "There has really never been anyone who has asked me: 'What happened to you over there? What was it like?' It's like having a whole year of your life that didn't exist," veteran Jamie Bryant told Isaacs in Vietnam Shadows. "When you first get back, you don't think about it much. Then you begin to wonder why no one asks the questions. Then you begin to feel like maybe it isn't something you should talk about."

Veterans' views of the antiwar movement

Many Vietnam veterans blamed the antiwar movement for the chilly reception they got upon returning to the United States. They believed that it was not fair for antiwar protesters to question their actions during the war. After all, most protesters had not been to Vietnam. In the eyes of the veterans, these protesters could not understand what the war had been like. In addition, many veterans thought that the antiwar movement should blame the government officials who had sent them to Vietnam, because as soldiers they had only followed orders.

Probably the biggest reason many Vietnam veterans felt anger and resentment toward the antiwar protesters was that they came from different social classes. The majority of men who served in Vietnam came from poor or working-class backgrounds. In contrast, many of the antiwar protesters were college students who came from middle- or upper-class families. Many of the deferments (official postponements of military service) granted to young men to avoid serving in Vietnam favored those who were wealthy and well-educated. For example, wealthy young men could afford to remain in college full-time—and even pursue advanced degrees following graduation—in order to qualify for student deferments. But these deferments were not available to students who had to work their way through college on a part-time basis.

Working-class men who were drafted often resented the student protesters, who used their social standing to avoid serving and then led rallies against the war from the safety of the United States. "To many veterans," Appy writes, "all protest seemed like yet another class privilege enjoyed by wealthier peers, and even moderate objections to the war, if made by draft-immune college students, were often read as personal attacks.

Student protests put into bold relief the contrast between the experiences of the two groups. Watching protest marches reminded some veterans of their own marches in Vietnam—those endless, exhausting, and dangerous humps. While they were enduring the hardship and danger of the war, college students were—in the eyes of many soldiers—frolicking on campus in a blissful round of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll and getting the credentials necessary to gain high-paying jobs."

Most veterans felt proud of their service to their country in Vietnam, yet many also had some doubts about the war and their own actions in it. In fact, some veterans protested against the war once they returned to the United States. But these antiwar veterans felt that they had earned the right to question the government's policies, while the student protesters had not. "For every guy who resists the draft one of us gotta go and he gets sent out into the boonies to get his backside shot at," veteran Steve Harper recalled after running into antiwar protesters in Chicago. "One of their signs read, 'We've already given enough.' And I thought, 'What have they given?'"

Difficulties readjusting to American society

Many Vietnam veterans built successful lives after they returned home from the war. They finished their educations, established good careers, and had families. But many other veterans had a tough time readjusting to life in the United States after they completed their military service. "I had the distinct feeling (common among returning veterans, I think) that this was not my country, not my time," veteran Larry Heinemann recalls in Vietnam Shadows. The cold reception the veterans got from many Americans left them feeling different and alone.

In addition, many veterans went from the jungles of Vietnam to their hometowns so quickly that they did not have time to adjust. Unlike previous wars, when it usually took weeks for soldiers to be discharged and transported home, U.S. soldiers often returned from Vietnam within two days. Returning to the safety and comfort of home so quickly made it more difficult for them to make sense of the danger and misery they experienced in Vietnam.

Some veterans returned from Vietnam with severe physical disabilities or emotional problems. The Vietnam War had a much higher ratio of wounded to killed soldiers than any previous war. Faster evacuation of wounded soldiers from battlefields and advances in medical treatment meant that more men survived combat injuries. But it also meant that more veterans came home with serious, crippling injuries, such as amputated limbs and paralysis. In addition, many American soldiers used hard drugs during their service in Vietnam. Drugs such as marijuana, opium, and heroin were cheap and easy to obtain. Drug addiction continued to be a problem among veterans when they returned home.

Since most of the soldiers who served in Vietnam were very young and came from working-class families, they did not have access to private health care in the United States. Instead, they had to depend on the U.S. government to provide them with treatment and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the government agency charged with caring for veterans, called the Veterans Administration (VA), did not do a good job of helping the Vietnam veterans. Many of the VA hospitals where they received treatment were dirty, understaffed, and unable to provide what veterans needed.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome

To make matters worse, the U.S. government at first denied that some of the veterans' health problems were related to their service in Vietnam. For example, many veterans developed mental and emotional problems as they struggled to cope with their feelings about the war. They suffered from symptoms including depression, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, angry outbursts, anxiety, and paranoia. Doctors eventually gave this condition a name, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS), and recognized it as a real psychological illness.

Studies have estimated that as many as 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSS. Probably just as many others had mild forms of PTSS that were not diagnosed. But the VA did not admit that PTSS existed until 1979, six years after the last American soldiers returned from Vietnam. In addition, VA hospitals and doctors did not do well in treating veterans with PTSS. Unable to find relief from their physical pain and mental anguish, some Vietnam veterans decided to end their own lives. In fact, some experts believe that the number of veterans who committed suicide after returning home from Vietnam was at least as great as the 58,000 Americans who died in the war.

Many Vietnam veterans also had trouble earning money and supporting themselves upon returning to the United States. Following World War II, the U.S. government had established a generous benefit program for veterans. This program paid veterans' living expenses plus offered them full college tuition. But the government was not so generous with Vietnam veterans. Partly because it had spent so much money conducting the war, the government offered veterans only $200 per month. This amount was barely enough to cover living expenses, let alone enable the veterans to continue their educations.

As it turned out, about 250,000 Vietnam veterans were unable to find jobs when their military service ended. Most of these men did not have a college degree. Some desperate veterans turned to crime or drugs to earn money. In fact, 25 percent of the American soldiers who saw combat in Vietnam were arrested on criminal charges within ten years of coming home, most for drug-related offenses.

Doubts about service

After returning to the United States, many veterans continued to support American military involvement in Vietnam. Even though they had not accomplished all of the U.S. goals, they still felt proud of their service to their country. They believed that they had done their duty and fought bravely for a good cause. They blamed America's political and military leaders for not coming up with a strategy that would allow them to win, or the American public for its lack of support.

But some other veterans developed grave doubts about the war and their own actions as soldiers. They questioned the reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and they felt deep regret about the death and destruction the war had caused the Vietnamese people. Such doubts were very hard on veterans, because they made it seem as if their sacrifices in Vietnam had been meaningless.

African American veterans were particularly affected by doubts about their military service. They returned home to communities that had strong antiwar feelings. Black leaders had opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning because they felt it took the country's attention away from the civil rights movement and social programs designed to benefit the poor. "Black people would say there was no reason for a black man to be there," veteran Robert L. Young notes in Vietnam Shadows. "It's not his war. His war is here at home."

Some Vietnam veterans became active in the antiwar movement when they returned to the United States. In the later years of the conflict, veterans were among the most effective activists opposing the war. People on both sides respected their views and took them seriously. By 1971—when conflicts within the antiwar movement had reduced its effectiveness—Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) became one of the most important antiwar groups. (See box titled "Veterans Join the Fight against the War" in Chapter 8, "The American Antiwar Movement.")

Changing American views toward veterans

As waves of Vietnam veterans returned home in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nation was locked in a bitter debate about the war. The heated arguments within the United States over military involvement in Vietnam kept most people from welcoming the veterans or recognizing their service. "Ignoring the Vietnam vet was just one part of the more general phenomenon of ignoring the nation's entire, shattering, unhappy Vietnam experience in all of its aspects," David Levy writes in The Debate over Vietnam.

By the 1980s, however, many Americans began to change their views of Vietnam veterans. They began to see that even if the war was wrong, most of the men who fought it were just ordinary guys doing their jobs. Many people started to feel sympathy and even gratitude toward the veterans. Soldiers who had served in Vietnam finally began receiving recognition and marching in holiday parades across the country. In 1985, Newsweek reported that "America's Vietnam veterans, once viewed with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility by their countrymen, are now widely regarded as national heroes."


Appy, Christian G. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Dougan, Clark, and Stephen Weiss, eds. The American Experience in Vietnam. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

Figley, Charles R., and Seymour Leventman, eds. Strangers at Home: Vietnam Veterans since the War. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Helmer, John. Bringing the War Home: The American Soldier in Vietnam andAfter. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Hubbell, John, with Andrew Jones and Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. P.O.W.: ADefinitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, 1964–1973. New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1976.

Isaacs, Arnold R. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.

Starr, Paul. The Discarded Army. New York: Charterhouse, 1974.

Words to Know

Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS) A set of psychological problems that are caused by exposure to a dangerous or disturbing situation, such as combat. People who suffer from PTSS may have symptoms such as depression, flashbacks, nightmares, and angry outbursts. The condition is also known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Veteran A former member of the armed forces; sometimes called a "vet" for short.

Veterans Administration A U.S. government agency responsible for providing medical care, insurance, pensions, and other benefits to American veterans of Vietnam and other wars.

American Prisoners of War (POWs)

There was one group of Vietnam veterans who received a warm greeting from fellow Americans upon returning home—those who had been held captive as prisoners of war (POWs). Since most of the fighting in the Vietnam War took place in South Vietnam, few American combat soldiers were captured and taken prisoner by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces. Most of the nearly 600 Americans who became POWs were pilots whose planes were shot down during bombing missions over North Vietnam.

Beginning in 1964, the NVA held American POWs in several prison camps in North Vietnam. Many of these men were held captive for years. Most of the POWs were treated badly. They were kept in miserable living conditions and often endured torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Their captors used brainwashing and brutal force to try to get them to sign confessions or make statements against the U.S. government or in favor of North Vietnamese Communists.

Although the American people were bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, everyone seemed greatly concerned over the welfare of the POWs. It was one of the few issues on which supporters and opponents of the war could agree. When the POWs were released in early 1973 with the signing of a peace agreement, they were greeted as heroes across the United States. Television footage showed tearful family reunions as former POWs stepped off airplanes. The men appeared at numerous rallies and ceremonies attended by top government officials.

The POWs became one of the few sources of American pride in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. "The heroes' welcome given to the 591 men freed in early 1973 was made into a kind of strange substitute for the victory parade Americans would never have," Arnold R. Isaacs writes in Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. "The prisoners' goal had been to survive and protect their honor under brutal torture; if the nation's goals hadn't been achieved in Vietnam, then the POWs' record of bravery and endurance would have to do."

Agent Orange

The U.S. military used a wide range of chemicals to aid troops in combat during the Vietnam War. These chemicals included tear gas, smoke screens, napalm (a highly flammable form of jellied gasoline), and herbicides (chemicals used to kill plants or prevent their growth).

The U.S. military sprayed herbicides over large areas of the Vietnamese countryside during the war. Military leaders wanted to clear thick stands of jungle and forest where they believed enemy forces might be hiding. They also wanted to kill rice and other crops that might be used to supply enemy troops. In 1967 alone, American planes sprayed 4.8 million gallons of herbicide and destroyed 1.2 million acres of forests and farmland.

One of the common herbicides used in Vietnam was called Agent Orange, after the orange stripe on the drums used to transport the chemical. Agent Orange contained several toxic compounds, including dioxin and 2,4,5-T. By 1979, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had banned the use of these compounds because of concerns that they were harmful to humans and animals.

Many American soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals during their time in Vietnam. Upon returning home, some of these veterans began to experience health problems that they blamed on their exposure to herbicides. For example, they had high rates of skin rashes, nerve disorders, birth defects, and cancer. "I was exposed to dioxin from the Agent Orange that was sprayed all throughout the delta," Congressional Medal of Honor winner Sam Davis told Clark Dougan and Stephen Weiss in The American Experience in Vietnam. "Most of the things that are wrong with me today, except for my back problem, can be attributed to dioxin. Because of my exposure to it, my internal organs work at the rate of a seventy- or seventy-five-year-old man—which is really confusing when you're only forty."

In 1977, Vietnam veterans formed several groups in order to inform the American people about their illnesses and to try to raise money for research and support. The veterans' groups also sued the manufacturers of Agent Orange. In 1984, they received an outof-court settlement of $180 million from the chemical companies. The following year, the U.S. government agreed to provide another $1 billion for research into the health effects of the wartime chemical use.