In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
A lot has been written about returning veterans, their problems, their readjustment issues — finding a job, going to school, trying to do all the things that make the veteran blend back into society seamlessly, as if he or she never left. It is about the most one-way street I have ever seen and experienced. Society, in my view, puts the burden of readjustment almost completely on the veteran. If the veteran cannot readjust to an "acceptable" degree or forgets a "rule" or two, or makes a mistake along the way, the veteran will experience "punishment." While this may sound like a really weird point of view, I recall experiencing some of these "punishments" and relate a few here:
- During my first day back in the Unites States from Vietnam, I failed to ditch my Army Class A uniform (like so many did), and jump into civilian clothes. I had civilian clothes with me, but I was proud to wear the uniform and my decorations on the way home. I was summarily refused service at a restaurant because I was in uniform. I did not make myself invisible and hide my Vietnam veteran status. Had I changed clothes, there would have been no problem, as I would have looked like any young guy who could get lost in the crowd. Of course, there were no "veterans only" restaurants around.
- The high point of a depression-riddled and failed excursion into graduate school was the refusal of fellow graduate students to room with me in the graduate dorms. Because I was a veteran, housing asked a few students (all U.S. citizens) if they would mind rooming with me. They told housing that they were afraid I was going to get up in the night and kill them. A Canadian student volunteered. He was a good guy, I did not fulfill my prognosticated destiny of a killing spree, and he did tell me the whole story of what went on at housing just a month after we had become roommates. That was a real kick in the pants, and just about made my physically ill. Who were these miscreants? It did not matter, for the damage was done.
Had I concealed my Vietnam veteran status, none of the above would have happened. These lessons taught me that society wanted nothing at all to do with veterans. They did not want to know, they did not care, and I felt despised and feared, so everything went underground.
More of society's irrational and indiscriminate punishments of Vietnam veterans were on the way:
- I was once told that lots of people in the U.S. supported the Vietnam veteran. Where were they? I guess they had just forgotten we existed. Maybe it was unconscious support by an unconscious population run by an unconscious government. After all, a few years later, all the draft dodgers were pardoned, which psychologically made our service and sacrifices, and of those who died in combat, meaningless. If it really did not matter if people shirked their duty and ran away, then, in the end, what did it all mean? After hearing "get over yourself, the war has been over for 10 (15, 20, 25, 30, 35...) years." I came to understand that the Vietnam War will never be "over" until the last Vietnam veteran is very, very dead.
- It was truly a slap in the face to my oath, patriotism and accomplishments when the government did not prosecute a high-profile U.S. citizen who decided to go to North Vietnam and play in public with the enemy in what I felt was unspeakable treason, while the enemy held our people as POWs just down the block and continued their carnage in South Vietnam. There are photos of this high-profile U.S. citizen playing with enemy anti-aircraft guns, and other war amusement park things, and giving interviews that were broadcast over the radio. If I did that, I would have been prosecuted and shot. To this day, I still have people trying to rationalize away this incident, which, to me, is a completely treasonous outrage.
I am very concerned for our new crop of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. I am hearing and reading reports, like in the past, that there are people who are treating these veterans with genuine disrespect because they think that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans volunteered for military service, so they "asked for it," concerning the problems they have that were caused by the war.
Isn't this outrageous, narrow-minded, myopic and everything else in between? I like to use the simple "just plain stupid."
Since June 14, 1775, all those enlisting in the military service of the United States take an oath. The present wording of the oath is:
I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
The oath is a binding promise. The oath does not specify a time limit.
The oath, in new speak, is a "performance specification."
What, then, is the point of belittling and demeaning Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans for their service? There is no point. I feel it is a down and dirty character flaw in those who choose to do so, and think that they themselves should be drafted in the military service of this country for two years!
Demeaning treatment towards the veteran, no matter how infrequent or subdued, is a severe impediment to the veteran trying to readjust to civilian life. Aside from the pragmatic aspects of readjustment, such as the search for employment, and the rebuilding of relationships that have been affected by time away, readjustment is also a profoundly psychological issue.
I quote the following paragraph from the book The Veteran Comes Back, by Willard Walter Waller. The book was published in 1944, but the continuing truths of its statements are self-evident:
Let us admit that the veteran, this man disgusted with politics and impatient of argument, has a real, a just grievance; indeed, a whole series of grievances. Without that admission we cannot properly understand, evaluate, or predict the veteran's behavior. He comes to believe that he has been swindled, and that belief is rarely without some foundation in fact. We have induced him to risk his neck for patriotism, but allowed others to get rich from his sacrifices. A nation like ours wages war on the basis of an un-spoken truth; while the men are fighting we suppose there will be a truce in all our little wars of classes and interests and races and religions and political parties. But there is never any ceasing in these wars and thereby the soldier knows he is betrayed. We have imposed upon the soldier's innocence and generosity; we have taken his youth and given him the memory of horrors; we have taken everything from him and left others at home to get along the better because he is away. To get his consent to be a soldier, we have promised everything, but usually given very little. As a measure of the swindle perpetrated on the soldiers, we should remember that the United States has never yet taken adequate care of the disabled in the years following a major war, and it has never given its recently demobilized soldiers of any war before the present one any real help in the task of readjusting themselves to civilian life. As the veterans said in 1919, "They said when we went away that when we came back nothing would be too good for us, and when we came back that was just what we got, nothing."
In my next post, coming next week, I will explore additional veteran's readjustment issues and the sleight-of-hand that is often played by employers and oversight government organizations with the veteran as a pawn.
Vietnam veteran. On coping with PTSD and lessons from Vietnam.
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