Vietnam Veteran

A Vietnam veteran is someone who served in the armed forces of participating countries during the Vietnam War. Common usage distinguishes between those who served ‘in country’ as ‘Vietnam veterans’ and the others as ‘Vietnam-era veterans.’ The U.S. government officially refers to all as ‘Vietnam-era veterans.’ According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA), ‘A Vietnam era veteran is a person who: ‘served on active duty for a period of more than 180 days, any part of which occurred between August 5, 1964 and May 7, 1975, and was discharged or released with other than a dishonorable discharge.’

The U.S. Census Bureau (2004) reports there are 8.2 million ‘Vietnam Era Veterans.’ Of these 2.59 million are reported to have served ‘in country.’ More than 58,000 US personnel died as a result of the conflict (this comprises deaths from all categories including deaths while missing, captured, non-hostile deaths, homicides, and suicides).

Although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, several million people served in the South Vietnamese armed forces, the vast majority of them in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)—between 1956 and 1975. It is known that during 1969–1971, there were about 22,000 ARVN combat deaths per year and the army reached a peak strength of about one million soldiers during 1972. The official number of anti-communist Vietnamese personnel killed in action was 220,357.

Following the communist victory on April 30, 1975, South Vietnamese veterans were rounded up and sent to reeducation camps, essentially forced labor camps in desolate areas. They were detained without trial for up to decades at a time. After being released, they and their children faced significant discrimination from the communist government. A significant proportion of the surviving South Vietnamese veterans left Vietnam for Western countries, either through the Humanitarian Operation (HO) or as ‘boat people’ (a term for the masses of refugees fleeing Vietnam in crudely made boats in the late 1970s).

In support of the US, Australia deployed approximately three battalions of infantry, one regiment of Centurion tanks, and three RAAF Squadrons. Approximately 49,000 Australian military personnel served in Vietnam. According to official statistics, 501 personnel died or went missing in action during the war and 2400 were wounded. The Australian veterans were very much rejected by the people and the government after returning and did not receive a welcome home parade until 1987, 15 years after the last soldier and national servicemen left Vietnam. Additionally, the government denied that defoliants such as Agent Orange had disastrous health effects on the veterans until 1992.

Also, more than 30,000 Canadians served in the US armed forces; 110 Canadians died in Vietnam and seven are listed as missing in action. Fred Graffen, military historian with the Canadian War Museum, estimated in ‘Vietnam Magazine’ that approximately 12,000 of these personnel actually served in Vietnam. Most of these were natives of Canada who lived in the United States. The military of Canada did not officially participate in the war effort, as it was appointed to the UN truce commissions and thus had to remain officially neutral in the conflict.

Initially, in May 1965, New Zealand provided one 4 gun artillery battery (140 men) with two rifle companies of infantry, and an SAS troop arriving later. At the height of New Zealand involvement in 1968, the force was 580 men. New Zealand’s total contribution numbered approximately 4,000 personnel. 37 were killed and 187 were wounded. As of 2010, no memorial has been erected to remember these casualties.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the Republic of Korea sent slightly over 300,000 servicemen to Vietnam. At the peak of their commitment, the ROK maintained a force of approximately 48,000 men in the country.

There are persistent stereotypes about Vietnam veterans as psychologically devastated, bitter, homeless, drug-addicted people who had a hard time readjusting to society, primarily due to the uniquely divisive nature of the Vietnam War in the context of U.S. History. That social division has expressed itself by the lack both of public and institutional support for the former servicemen expected by returning combatants of most conflicts in most nations. In a material sense also, veterans’ benefits for Vietnam era veterans were dramatically less than those enjoyed after World War II. The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 was meant to alleviate this.

In 1979, Public Law 96-22 established the first Vet Centers, after a decade of effort by combat vets and others who realized the Vietnam veterans in America and elsewhere (including Australia) were facing specific kinds of readjustment problems. Those problems would later become identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the early days, most Vet Center staffers were Vietnam veterans themselves, many of them combat veterans. Representatives of the Disabled American Veterans started advocating for the combat veterans to receive benefits for their war related psychological trauma. Some U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital personnel also encouraged the veterans working at the Vet Centers to research and expand treatment options for vets suffering the particular symptoms of this newly recognized syndrome.

This was a controversial time, but eventually, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opened Vet Centers nationwide. These centers helped develop many of the debriefing techniques used nowadays with traumatized populations from all walks of life. The Vietnam veterans who started working in the early Vet Centers eventually began to reach out and serve World War II and Korean vets as well, many of whom had suppressed their own traumas or self-medicated for years. Veterans, particularly in Southern California, were responsible for many of those early lobbying and subsequent Vet Center treatment programs. These men founded one of the first local organizations by and for Vietnam veterans in 1981 (now known as Veterans Village).

Vets were also largely responsible for taking debriefing and treatment strategies into the larger community where they were adapted for use in conjunction with populations impacted by violent crime, abuse, manmade and natural disasters, and those in law enforcement and emergency response. Other notable organizations that were founded during this period included the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the National Organization for Victim Assistance. These organizations continue to study and/or certify post-traumatic stress disorder responders and clinicians.

There are still, however, many proven cases of individuals who have suffered psychological damage from their time in Vietnam. Many others were physically wounded, some permanently disabled. However, there are case of successful and well-adjusted Vietnam veterans such as Al Gore, Fred Smith (founder and president of Federal Express), Colin Powell, John McCain, and Craig Venter (famed for being the first to map the human genome).

The Vietnam veteran has been depicted in fiction and film of variable quality. A major theme is the difficulties of soldiers readjusting from combat to civilian life. This theme had occasionally been explored in the context of WWII in such films as ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946) and ‘The Men’ (1950). However, films featuring Vietnam veterans constitute a much larger genre. The first appearance of a Vietnam veteran in film seems to be ‘The Born Losers’ (1967). Bleaker in tone are such films as ‘Hi, Mom!’ (1970) in which vet Robert De Niro films pornographic home movies before deciding to become an urban guerrilla, and ‘The Strangers in 7A,’ in which a team of former paratroopers blow up a bank and threaten to demolish a residential apartment building, and other examples, such as, ‘The Hard Ride’ (1971) and ‘Welcome Home Soldier Boys’ (1972), in which returning vets are met with incomprehension and violence.

In films like ‘Gordon’s War’ (1973) and ‘Rolling Thunder’ (1977), the veteran uses his combat skills developed in Vietnam to wage war on evil-doers in America. This is also the theme of ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) in which Robert De Niro plays Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle who wages a one man war against society while planning to assassinate a presidential candidate. Apparently this film inspired John W. Hinckley to make a similar attempt against President Ronald Reagan. In a similar vein is ‘First Blood’ (1982) which features John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone in an iconic role), as a Vietnam vet who comes into conflict with a small town police department.

Such films as ‘Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol’ (1972) and ‘The Ninth Configuration’ (1979) were innovative in depicting veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, before this syndrome became widely known. In ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989) Tom Cruise portrays disenchanted Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic who, wounded in action and wheelchair bound, leads rallies against the war. A more recent example is Bruce Dern’s portrayal of a down-and-out veteran in the film ‘Monster’ (2003).

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