The Myth of the Missing Welcome

The Napa Valley Register reported a June 28, 2016, program to honor Viet Nam veterans at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, an event sponsored by the Veterans Home of California. I am always glad to see veterans of different generations and their families get together.

But the article title suggests that the event perpetuated a myth: “Vietnam Veterans welcomed home after 50 years.”

The truth is that we Viet Nam veterans have been thanked, respected, praised, saluted, and honored for decades. Not just by veterans’ organizations, but by every community in America.

I was disappointed to read that Rep. Mike Thompson said “It’s about time we got some recognition.” And when I read that “amends were offered Tuesday for the rough treatment that many Vietnam veterans received when they came home from war,” I was puzzled about who was offering amends since no one in the room roughly treated veterans.

Do you know any Americans other than the Westboro Baptist Church who are not respectful of veterans? Neither do I.

But for various reasons, a few Vietnam veterans still say that we are neglected and unappreciated.

Memorial space on the Washington mall is notoriously hard to win. But the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the Wall, was completed a full 34 years ago, and has since been supplemented by two other Vietnam War memorial statues on the mall. Amazingly, The Wall was built 22 years before the mall’s memorial to World War II veterans.

When I lived in Napa I never met the veteran who is quoted in the Register article as saying that he was spat upon when he returned, but I was surprised to read about his account. Despite my asking many hundreds of veterans about being spat upon, I have only met one who said it had happened to him.

I have long felt that being spat upon was originally used as a metaphor for benign neglect when we returned one at a time, and soon became a useful meme for some veterans and politicians when taken literally.

One historian could not find a single newspaper record of an arrest because of a spitting assault or violent veteran retaliation, or a single corroborated account to include in his book Spitting Image. That veteran in Napa did not describe a typical veteran’s return. Perhaps the Napa veteran’s experience and one or two others were the rare incidents that got reported so often that eventually they seemed universal.

Would returning veterans slink away from spitters?

Like many army veterans, I returned to the United States and was discharged into civilian life about 24 hours after turning in my weapon in Viet Nam, with no cooling down transition period, and no workshops on how to adjust. I’m very glad that veterans these days are given transition help.

I was discharged in Oakland, reportedly the worst scene for constant spitting and harassment, but it was peaceful when I got back in the fall of 1968, despite the intense national debate on the war and despite the rancorous presidential campaigning.

When we returned to the United States, most of us were wound far too tight to have quietly endured spitting or taunts, and we reacted to real or perceived threats aggressively, something we learned both in training and in Viet Nam.

That learned alertness to hostility can take years to dissipate, has probably exacerbated more than a few veterans’ altercations with police, and has probably contributed to veterans being on the lookout for instances of civilian aloofness or disrespect.

That wariness has perhaps also made us veterans more eager for and vulnerable to the praise of politicians, who put more energy into election speeches than into funding and improving the Veterans Administration. I do not think veterans should look for validation from non-veterans campaigning for political office.

Know who your friends are

The 50th anniversary of the war seems none too soon for veterans to put aside any sense of victimization by their communities, neighbors and families.

If we veterans were victimized, it was by the elected officials of both parties who kept sending us to Viet Nam, not by the neighbors who took us back.

The Pentagon Papers eventually showed me that before I was even drafted in 1966, well before I was sent to Viet Nam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara acknowledged in a classified document that the Vietnam War could not be won.

Thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died after that, because neither political party would risk being called weak or unpatriotic by the other party. Our current wars seem equally sticky.

A thought for the day

If army battalions avoided risk as much as our political parties do, every operation would be a retreat.

Who supports the troops?

A welcoming populace is very important to veterans as they readjust, and always has been. Our first re-adjustment counselors and our first PTSD therapists are family and friends, mostly women.

Support for veterans is best shown by families and neighborhoods, not by brass bands, election speeches, and free meals. By job training and health services, not by taxpayer-funded NFL halftime shows.

A veteran who is proud of his or her service and conduct in service does not need frequent public ritual praise. That veteran should be content with the reassuring knowledge that he or she performed honorably, worked hard, and served the country as the country’s leaders asked.

We should focus not on ourselves, but on helping younger veterans and future veterans. Each generation of veterans is largely disinterested in the previous generation’s pontifications (kids today!), but why should that stop us.

To paraphrase a security slogan, if you know something, say something.

We Vietnam War veterans now should have the courage to look beyond ourselves and perform our next service to our country: continually learning more about our war and other wars, and offering what we have experienced and learned as part of the continual national discussion about foreign policy. We should not just be background props for political speeches.

Of course we veterans often strenuously disagree with each other about the Vietnam War and politics and subsequent wars. Out of the service, we no longer need to act in unison, and we can respectfully quarrel and argue over nearly anything.

But we all support and welcome back and want success for new veterans. Thank goodness neighbors and communities are doing the same — as they always have.


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