U.S. Marine; founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)
and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL)
"[The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial] rekindled that sense and gave the beginning of [a feeling that] it's okay to be a Vietnam vet—you don't have to be ashamed or embarrassed."
Vietnam veteran Bobby Muller is one of America's best-known advocates for the men and women who served in the Vietnam War, as well as for people all around the world who have been scarred by war. A former Marine lieutenant whose war injuries left him a paraplegic (unable to use his legs), Muller was a key figure in the creation of both the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF). In the 1990s he cofounded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), an organization dedicated to ending the use of landmines around the world.
Muller enlists in the Marine Corps
Robert Muller was born in 1946 in Long Island, New York. The eldest of two sons of Robert and Edith Muller, Bobby grew up in a New York City suburb. After graduating from high school in 1964, he enrolled at nearby Hofstra University. In the meantime, the United States had dramatically increased its involvement in an armed conflict in Vietnam.
American involvement in Vietnam's affairs had begun in the 1950s, when the U.S. government sent generous military and financial aid packages to the young country of South Vietnam to help it establish a strong economy and a democratic government. But by the early 1960s America had become gravely concerned that South Vietnam was on the verge of falling to the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the South. U.S. analysts claimed that if the South were overrun by the Communists, other nations would become more vulnerable to a Communist takeover. When North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks pushed South Vietnam to the brink of collapse in the mid-1960s, the United States escalated its involvement in the conflict. Before long, America had assumed primary responsibility for both the ground war in the South and the air war against the North.
As Muller pursued his studies at Hofstra, he watched events unfold in Vietnam with growing interest. "Back in late '66, early '67, everybody was very rah, rah, Vietnam," he recalled in The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. "I was in business school at Hofstra, and in the last part of my junior year I was doing very well, Dean's list, management as a specialty." Around this time, however, several professors told him that military experience would help his future career. In addition, Muller began to feel that by not serving in Vietnam, he was missing out on a significant event in his nation's history. These factors convinced him to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps and request an infantry assignment.
Muller graduated from Hofstra with a degree in business administration in the spring of 1968. He then reported to the Marines for officer training. Muller excelled in his training, and in the fall of 1968 he was sent to Vietnam as a Marine lieutenant.
Tour of duty ends with life-threatening bullet wound
Muller spent the next several months leading patrols and missions in some of the most dangerous countryside in Vietnam. During this time, he endured long, difficult marches through the jungle and fierce firefights with enemy forces. As the months passed, Muller became disillusioned with the whole war effort. He became convinced that American military policies in Vietnam were ineffective and that the South Vietnamese military was incapable of defending itself without U.S. help. At the same time, he developed a grudging admiration for the enemy, which he described in The Bad War as "tough, hard, and dedicated."
Muller spent eight months in Vietnam before suffering a crippling injury in combat against North Vietnamese forces in April 1969. "I caught a bullet through the chest," he said in The Bad War. "It went through both lungs, severed the spinal cord. Your spinal cord has all those nerves, right? Boom, when something goes through that sucker, that rings a bell, and it was just stunning. I felt like I was in a kaleidoscope and everything was fragmented and multicolored and boom. I'll never forget the sequence of thoughts: ' . . . I've been hit. I got it right in the gut. My girl, she's going to kill me.' Then I said, 'I don't got to worry about that, I'm going to die.'"
Muller was quickly evacuated to a nearby military hospital, where doctors raced to save his life. "They put in the medical records that had I arrived one minute later, I'd have been dead, because both lungs had collapsed," Muller recalled. "All I know is that I woke up with tubes everywhere. But I was stunned, amazed, overwhelmed and ecstatic over the fact that I woke up at all."
Muller's spinal cord injury made him a paraplegic and forced him into a wheelchair. After returning to the United States, he was sent to the Kingsbridge VA (Veterans Administration) Hospital in the Bronx in New York City for rehabilitation. VA facilities such as the one in Kingsbridge are meant to help American military veterans who suffer from physical and emotional problems. But many facilities in the VA hospital system did not have adequate resources to provide good treatment in the 1970s, and the Bronx hospital to which Muller was sent was filthy, understaffed, and overcrowded. In fact, the facility neglected even the most basic needs of the veterans. These horrible conditions made a deep impression on Muller, who endured several months at the facility before being released.
Antiwar activist and veterans' advocate
In the early 1970s Muller became an active member of the antiwar movement. In addition, he gained a reputation during this time as a crusader on behalf of Vietnam veterans, who he believed were being terribly neglected by their own country. As an advocate for his fellow veterans, he worked tire lessly to improve their medical care and assist them in their efforts to establish postwar careers.
Muller also returned to Hofstra, where he earned a law degree in 1974. One year later he married Virginia Estevez, the sister of a Vietnam veteran who had committed suicide after returning to the United States. The couple soon settled in Huntington, New York.
In 1978 Muller cofounded the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), an organization dedicated to providing for the needs of the men and women who served their country in Vietnam. As president of the VVA, Muller played an important role in convincing the U.S. government to give additional medical help and financial compensation to veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange during the war. This flammable chemical was used throughout the war by U.S. forces to destroy jungle areas used by Communist forces. After the war, however, many American veterans suffered serious health problems that were caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
In 1980 Muller helped establish the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), an organization dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to victims of war around the world. The next year he led the first delegation of Vietnam veterans to visit Vietnam since the war's end in 1975. These activities, along with milestones such as the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., helped give America's Vietnam veterans—who had long felt ignored or forgotten by their fellow citizens—a belated sense of pride in their military service. "Look, we shared something that was powerful, and it shouldn't be forgotten," Muller said in The Bad War. "What it means differs to different people, but [the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial] rekindled that sense and gave the beginning of [a feeling that] it's okay to be a Vietnam vet—you don't have to be ashamed or embarrassed."
Leads the fight to ban landmines
In 1987 Muller was named president of the VVAF. As president, he established several VVAF-sponsored clinics that manufacture and distribute wheelchairs and prosthetics (artificial limbs) to people—both soldiers and civilians—who have been maimed and crippled by war.
Muller's work on behalf of the VVAF soon led him to turn his attention to a problem that afflicted dozens of countries around the world: the presence of millions of landmines that had been planted during periods of war. Antipersonnel landmines are small explosive devices that are placed in the ground in order to injure enemy forces. These deadly devices, which are capable of blowing off entire arms and legs, remain active for years. In many cases, they remain in place long after a war has ended, killing and maiming farmers, children, and other people who step on them. Some analysts estimate that these landmines claim 26,000 lives a year around the world.
In 1992 Muller and Jody Williams founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL eventually brought together more than a thousand organizations—including children's welfare groups, religious organizations, and environmental groups—to call for a worldwide ban on the production and use of landmines around the world. "These weapons have become probably the most destabilizing factor in third world countries today that are recovering from conflict," Muller explained in the New York Times. "Three dollar antipersonnel landmines have killed more people than all the Cold War weapons of mass destruction combined."
In October 1997 the ICBL and its coordinator, Jody Williams, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of landmines. Two months later, 121 countries signed an agreement called the Ottawa Treaty, which formally banned all members from using, producing, selling, or storing landmines.
The Ottawa Treaty was a great triumph for the ICBL. But the United States, China, Russia, and a number of other nations declined to sign the treaty, citing a variety of military and security concerns. Their refusal to agree to the ban deeply disappointed Muller and other activists who had worked on the landmine issue for so many years. But they recognized that the Ottawa Treaty represented an important first step in eliminating the threat of landmines around the world. With this in mind, Muller launched the Campaign for a Landmine Free World in 1998. This organization is dedicated to fulfilling the goals of the international landmine treaty (which went into effect in March 1999) and working for an eventual worldwide ban on landmine production and use.
"Ex-Marine Hates Mines and His Battle Pays Off." New York Times, December 3, 1997.
Figley, Charles R., and Seymour Leventman, eds. Strangers at Home: Vietnam Veterans Since the War. Brunner/Mazel, reprint 1990.
MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Willenson, Kim. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: New American Library, 1987.
"Wounds That Will Not Heal." Time, July 13, 1981.
A "Bad War" Indeed
Bobby Muller began his tour of duty in Vietnam in the fall of 1968. Upon arriving in the war-torn country, he grabbed a ride with a helicopter so that he could join his platoon out in the jungle. But when the helicopter pilot located Muller's platoon, he saw that they were engaged in a fierce battle with enemy forces. The helicopter quickly landed, dropping Muller off as enemy mortars exploded all around the landing zone. As the helicopter flew off, Muller found his platoon, which had suffered several casualties in the battle. In the following passage from The Bad War, Muller recalls his initial impressions of the war after finding his platoon:
My guys had, I think, three killed and eight wounded. We had to get medevac ships [medical evacuation helicopters] in to lift them out.
Before the medevacs come in, we called in supporting arms [bombing strikes designed to wipe out enemy forces in the immediate area]. In training they give you the "Mad Minute," which is very impressive but doesn't hold a candle to the real thing, when you walk in [guide] your artillery and call in your jet strikes just beyond your perimeter. It was awesome. Awesome. And I got so pumped, I said, 'Ain't nobody going to [mess] with us. Not when we can do what we've just done to those poor [people].'
So in come the medevacs, throw in the dead and the wounded, the chopper lifts off, maybe fifty meters off the deck. And all around us all of a sudden Prrow! Prrow! Prrow! . . . . Chopper starts to wobble. Boom! It goes down in the valley. Everybody on board is killed. . . . That was my first afternoon. I said, 'All right. A little reality therapy right off the bat' . . . .
Next day I take out a patrol. Guys leaving the perimeter cross themselves [a religious gesture that symbolizes devotion to God]. Each one looked at me and right off the bat, I understood that it wasn't a game. Lots of fear and very, very intense. And it was my introduction to the absurdity of it all because we were out in no-man's land, and they didn't have the helicopters to lift us out, so a couple of days later they had us walk out. We had to go down to the valley and walk along the river bed. There were supposed to be NVA [North Vietnamese Army] regiments in the area. For three or four days from sunrise to sunset we walked, sometimes along the bank, sometimes in water up to your waist, with the banks coming in vertical drops right to the river. I kept saying to myself if there was an NVA regiment in the area, forget it, we're dead. They could have set up an ambush any one of countless places. All I remember thinking from the get-go was the absolute stupidity of this entire . . . war. I waited three days from sunrise 'till sunset to get blown away.
Landmines Remain a Deadly Problem around the World
Statistics compiled by the United Nations and the U.S. government indicate that approximately 110 million landmines remain planted in the ground in nearly seventy different countries around the world. Analysts estimate that removing these mines, which injure and kill thousands of people every year, would cost an estimated $33 billion. In addition, various nations own an additional 100 million landmines that could be used at any time. This figure is expected to increase in the future, even though more than 120 countries signed a treaty in 1997 that banned them from making, using, or purchasing landmines. More than fifty nations—including the United States, China, and Russia—refused to sign the agreement, and they continue to manufacture landmines.