Like most other Vietnam Veterans, I returned home from the Vietnam War to an environment in the United States that viewed Vietnam Vets as possible “baby killers;” resulting from the aftermath of publicity surrounding horrible crimes at My Lai and other lesser known incidents. Those were indeed terrible crimes, but in no way should they have tainted all Vietnam era Vets. The impact of the anti-War protests across the nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s fostered an anti-Vietnam Veteran atmosphere here at home that lasted for more than 20 years.
When I used my GI Bill benefits and returned to college, I rarely said anything to anyone about serving in Vietnam. I had friends that knew me for years who did not about my service there. I think most Vietnam Vets felt the same way I did. Movies and television shows at the time often portrayed Vietnam Vets as taking part in drug-induced killing sprees. Things did not really start changing on that front until the mid to late 1980s, and part of the credit for that must go to the building of the Wall, whose design was controversial among many Vets who did not like it at that time because it placed a “dark, grave-like” emphasis on the deaths of the more than 58,000 who died. However, it has proven that it has served as a place for healing those psychological wounds.
As a reporter at The Washington Times from 1983 to 1985, I reported on the controversy surrounding the design and construction of the Wall, and I also reported on many of the Vietnam Vets who began hanging around the Wall at the POW-MIA tents that were pitched close by. I interviewed many of them and spent the night on the Mall with them several times to observe, watch – and to listen. It was clear to me that many of them were still dealing with difficult issues related to their experience in Vietnam. There were few programs designed to help them receive needed counseling. Many had PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – but had not received treatment or counseling for it since public recognition of the issue did not begin to become a significant factor until the early 1990s – nearly 20 years after the end of the War.
Now, I am glad to say, things have changed for the better – and are continuing to evolve. There are a host of counseling programs available for Veterans and active duty servicemembers. VA has been a leader in the treatment of PTSD and has a great suicide prevention program in place through its Veterans Crisis Line that has documented success in preventing thousands of possible suicides. VA’s new outreach program, Make the Connection, is reaching out to Veterans of all eras to help them obtain benefits and services they need and deserve.
Veterans Service Organizations also are conducting massive outreach programs and helping millions of Veterans. One newly formed one called Listening to America’s Veterans is gearing up to provide Veterans with a forum to write and express themselves. It is not intended to provide counseling; rather it is to become an outlet for expression about what is happening with them now that they have returned from the combat zone. Another new group, Code of Support, has been formed to help Veterans and their family members become aware that the public does in fact support them and that help is available.
These services provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense as well as the VSOs were sorely missing in the aftermath of Vietnam. Problems may still exist, but the services and public support are now there as well. The public attitude about service in the military during times of war now has evolved to “hate the war, not the soldier.” Perhaps the real legacy of Vietnam is just that—never again should America’s service members return home to find the people holding them in disdain for fighting for their country. Separating the soldier and Veteran from the politics of the War is the true, lasting legacy of Vietnam.
William Outlaw is the Director of Communications for the Office of Patient Care Services, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and a Vietnam Veteran.