It’s not unusual for vets in uniform to be stopped by strangers and told how much their service is valued, especially around Veterans Day. But Americans weren’t always grateful to the men and women who served in the military. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, some treated Vietnam veterans with indifference or even blatant hostility.
The country had been generally supportive of the Vietnam War in its early days. An October 1965 Post survey found 65 percent of Americans ready to extend the Vietnam War another four to five years. And 59 percent were willing to escalate it, “even if it means bombing Hanoi and Red China.” But enthusiasm faded as the country learned the harsh realities of the fighting. In time, some Americans extended their resentment of the war to the men who were fighting it. The war became an uncomfortable fact, and its veterans were given scant recognition for their service.
Below, five Vietnam veterans share thoughts about service to country, the public’s reaction to their service, and how it shaped their thoughts on war today.
Charles Boland, Corporal, USMC
Making a choice: “I knew the chances were quite high that I’d be drafted, and I always wanted to be a Marine. … There is no other service with its history of the esprit de corps. When you enlist in the Marines, you’re changed forever.”
Public reactions: “I was wounded, evacuated, and sent home. … I remember being confronted by a woman. She asked me how I’d been hurt. When I told her I’d been wounded in Vietnam, she said, ‘I wish you’d been killed.’ Until then, I hadn’t been confronted by hatred.
“People walk up to you now and say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ But some vets get mad when they hear this. They tell me they get the feeling what’s really being said is ‘thank you for serving so I didn’t have to.’”
Serving the country: “Just paying your taxes is like buying a substitute to take your place in the Civil War. … I think there should a greater sense of service to country … in the Peace Corps, in communities, assisting other people, volunteering at VA hospitals to free up the staff, not just in the military.”
Reflecting on the war: “Too many people are willing to go to war at the drop of the hat. They’re not really willing to look at what’s going on.”
Dave Beyerlein, Infantry Sergeant, USMC
Making a choice: “I joined in March of 1966 with a buddy in Portland. The Marines grew me up and gave me respect for authority.”
Public reactions: “There was no respect for time spent and sacrifices made. We caught a lot of crap from people. At least one person called me a baby killer.
“It took decades for America’s thinking to come around so people could recognize that we [veterans] were just slobs who got caught in the war. Problem is, it took a lifetime to for that to happen.”
Serving the country: “I believe everyone should spend two years in service to our country. If you’re just along for a free ride, you don’t understand what you’re getting for free. It doesn’t have to be the military; it can be any service. But it gives you ownership. It will give you a different perspective and you’ll value your citizenship more.”
Reflecting on the war: “I’m so antiwar now it’s crazy. The war we were in was totally worthless. It was what, 58,000 dead? And now Vietnam’s one of our trading partners, and they’re still communist.”
Randolph Schiffer, First Lieutenant, USMC, Commander, USN Reserves
Making a choice: “For young men in America in the 1960s, the Vietnam War was the central issue. … I wanted to face this issue squarely. … I [joined the Marines] to make a statement to myself about duty, honor, and loyalty to country.”
Public reactions: “I was accepted at three top-tier medical schools before I went, but when I returned two of those three refused to reaccept me, as did seven others to which I applied. The sentiment in the medical schools was exemplified by the admissions committee feedback given to me in person by Harvard. ‘We’re not taking you because you’re a Vietnam veteran,’ they said. When I asked what specifically it was about the veteran part, they said, ‘We just don’t think a Vietnam veteran could do the work at Harvard Medical School.’
“There has been a complete inversion in Americans’ attitude toward veterans. People who return from the Mideast war can’t walk into a room without hearing ‘thanks for your service.’ I didn’t hear that when I came back in 1972.
“I believe what we’re seeing here is the national guilt and shame about the way they treated people like me in the 1960s. … Now I get admiration for my service, but it was a long road to getting it.”
Reflecting on the war: “Eisenhower said the most powerful military force is an aroused democracy. We don’t have that now. … The wealthy, powerful, and white, in many cases, are saying ‘I don’t want to serve in military.’ We have a professional military. It’s smaller and better paid, but not diverse enough to be representative of the country.”
Ted Decker, Corporal E4, USMC
Making a choice: “I’d decided that, if I was going to serve, I’d serve as a Marine … all the while knowing there was a good chance I was going to Vietnam. … I take great pride in it [my service]. But military life is not for everyone. We, as a nation, have to respect people who do that. It’s a hard life.”
Public reactions: “Back then, vets were looked on with disdain. Vets today are treated with more respect. I think we paid for it.”
Serving the country: “I had a chance to see different cultures, and I realized that ours is a great country. I didn’t appreciate the simple things until I had to do without them. … I think every young man or woman should spend at least a year in service, in some form, whether in the Peace Corps or some such organization.”
Reflecting on the war: “After the death and atrocities I’ve seen, I wonder why God spared me. I came close to death so many times. But when I look at my son and three grandsons, I know.
“I don’t think we should ever forget Vietnam. What that war did was make us a nation that’s afraid to act until it’s too late. We keep waiting and hoping things will get better.”
Andres Vaart, Captain, USMC
Making a choice: “I was an immigrant [from Estonia]. My mother and I were fortunate enough to get to the U.S. in 1950. I felt strongly that military service was the right thing, knowing what it was like to be occupied by Soviet Union. … I was interested in joining the Marines. I knew we’d be going to Vietnam, but I would be going into service to fight communism. It didn’t matter where.”
Serving the country: “To me, the idea of universal service to the nation is a very reasonable one, whether in the military or somewhere else.”
Reflecting on the war: “In those days, there was one big enemy. We got used to the big enemy we had to unify to oppose. Now I wonder if we got into that habit of thinking: We now leap to the idea of that one big thing, whether it’s the Chinese, Islam, or general terrorism.
“I sometimes wonder about the most powerful nation on earth being the most fearful nation. I think we should respond to challenges with something other than fear — rather a sense of acceptance and some confidence we know how to deal with problems.”
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