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The War Comes Home: Post-Vietnam Struggle
Reprinted from the June 1973, Volume 3, Number 4 issue of Winter Soldier.
The war in Indochina has produced many casualties. Over 50 thousand Americans are dead, over 300,000 were wounded, 45,000 of them permanently disabled from their wounds. For the people of Indochina, the death toll is still rising as the United States continues to bomb the countryside of Laos and Cambodia. The ravages of war on ex-servicemen can be clearly seen in their torn bodies and the numbers of the dead. However, some of the results of the war are not visible and hard to see, and hard to understand once seen.
Steven Hawkins, an ex-Airman, had what most people would consider a "cushy" job. Steve was stationed in Okinawa, and all he had to do was assemble the components of the bombs that went into the bellies of B-52s and other fighter-bombers. He did not have to see the results of those bombs, the shattered bodies, the burned faces, and the ravaged countryside. But Steve suffers as if he had seen it, as if he were right there on the ground when the bombs exploded. Steve has to face himself, face that casualty of the mind that destroys one's self-image: guilt. America told Steve that he was fighting Commies, and he was making bombs so that the Vietnamese could be free. However, Steve, like millions of other vets, learned that he was lied to and that his own government was suppressing freedom. He must now struggle with his mind, with his own guilt, to overcome the feeling of being used for murder.
Rickey Ditch is 22, an ex-Marine, who received many medals for service to his country, including 4 Silver Stars, 5 Bronze Stars, and 2 Navy Crosses. Rickey is at times on the verge of suicide because he has nightmares about the times when he cut out people's hearts, and cut the ears from the head of a 15 year old girl.
Don Kemp came home from Vietnam in 1967 blown out from his work as a member of the Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon (LRRPs). Don's job was to fire on his own GI friends or the enemy if the two formed a local truce with each other, just to keep the war going. He also murdered villagers if they became passive about the war. Upon his return home, Don kept guns under his pillow, in his car, knives in his boots, and a GI first aid kit thinking that he was still in Vietnam. One night, during one of his frequent nightmares, his wife tried to wake him and he shot her dead with the gun he kept under his pillow, all the time thinking he was defending his position in Vietnam. Don Kemp is in jail for life.
Post-Vietnam Struggle (PVS) is the veteran's attempt to re-integrate into society after undergoing the most intense, conflicting experience of his life. If society does not understand that experience, then the struggle after returning home is harder, sometimes impossible. America has shown little concern for the truth behind Vietnam and this is reflected in the treatment and lack of concern for the troubles of the Vietnam veteran. America's "John Wayne" image of GIs and the military's own dehumanized image of what is a man leaves the veteran with a contradiction: Believe what America and the military tells him is reality, or believe his own real-life experiences which are opposite to the "official" reality.
Dr. C.F. Shatan, a New York psychiatrist, has described PVS as having several different ways of manifesting itself. These points are similar to what any individual might undergo, but different in the context of the Vietnam war. Guilt, self-punishment, no outlet for bitterness or hatred, feelings of being a scapegoat, psychic numbing, alienation, inability to express love or trust, and confusion from never really knowing who the "enemy" is.
Dr. Robert Lifton, who has been working with Vietnam veterans for several years, states that the veteran's "overall psychological task is that of finding meaning and justification in having survived, and in having fought and killed." Body counts, free-fire zones, carpet bombing, and search and destroy missions all leave the GI with the notion that his job is to kill as many people as possible, and feel patriotic. Then to return to a society that sees no honor in his having served, to not come home victorious as in WWII, to see that no one really cares if he lived or died; these things totally alienate the Vietnam vet from the rest of America, until he looks for a hole to hide in (like drugs) or he begins to re-live Vietnam again and again.
In a study done by Cecil Peck, he found that 23-27% of Vietnam veterans have attempted suicide. If this study is accurate, it would mean that over 500,000 Vietnam veterans have attempted suicide. To top off the problem, the Veterans Administration does not recognize PVS as a real problem or that it is service connected (an important point when a vet needs VA help), and has done little in this area. In fact, the VA has spent more time in trying to show how it was really early childhood that is responsible for these problems, and has spent little time in assisting those people who are actively researching PVS in the hopes of helping the veteran.
The majority of the membership of VVAW/WSO has also lived through the experience of Vietnam and the military. We did not trust the VA nor our families, and so we came together with other vets to help each other. VVAW/WSO has rap groups in several states in which veterans help veterans understand what has happened. Although VVAW/WSO has political objectives, our rap groups lay no trips on anyone, unlike the VA. Pro-war, anti-war, or don't give a shit; the groups are there to help.
November 1973, Volume 3, Number 9 issue of Winter Soldier.