They came home without leaving Vietnam, angry and depressed, retreating from the world and burdened by memories of the dead.
They came home intent on resuming their lives, changed but resilient, returning to work or school and driven by ambitions for the future.
The first category describes most Vietnam veterans as held in the country’s imagination and depicted in Hollywood films of the era. The second describes the ordinary reality most of them lived.
Yet the “troubled vet” stereotype, while rooted in truth, shadowed that silent majority of returning troops as they again donned civilian clothes. The stubborn perception colored how others treated them and complicated their recovery from psychic wounds that, if not so severe as to push them to homelessness or suicide, still needed to mend.
“So often, people reacted to them as broken,” said Philip Napoli, author of “Bringing It All Back Home: An Oral History of New York City’s Vietnam Veterans,” published last year.
Napoli interviewed hundreds of former servicemembers who told stories of employers, friends and family members pulling back from them as they tried to re-assimilate. Taking into account that some of the men and women struggled with addiction and mental trauma, he found that many had felt stigmatized by their service.
“The myth that all of them are damaged is, in fact, the defining aspect of their generation of veterans,” he said, referring to the more than 3.4 million troops who served in Southeast Asia. “They had to live inside that myth. It shaped the trajectory of their whole life.”
Public opposition swelled as the conflict in Southeast Asia dragged on, and returning troops encountered a country mired in a culture war.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War staged a protest in 1971 in which more than 800 former military members hurled their service medals onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The surging peace movement, with actress Jane Fonda in a leading role, attracted several prominent veterans, including future U.S. Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry and Ron Kovic, author of “Born on the Fourth of July.”
Other veterans chose to conceal their military past, trading buzz cuts and uniforms for the campus camouflage of long hair and jeans.
“I tried to blend in the best I could,” Karl Marlantes said. The former Marine is the author of a meditative memoir, “What It Is Like to Go to War,” and the acclaimed novel “Matterhorn.” The books mine his experiences in and after Vietnam, where he earned the Navy Cross and Bronze Star. For years after his tour ended in 1969, he kept his medals stashed in a drawer and seldom mentioned he had served, the lingering effects of an incident not long before his discharge.
During a short administrative posting in Washington, D.C., he happened upon a small antiwar rally near the White House. A group of protesters standing across the street noticed his uniform and shouted obscenities at him. He had returned to an America that seemed as far away as when he landed in Vietnam.
“It didn’t make me angry; it hurt,” said Marlantes, who had left Oxford to volunteer for the Marines. “The world didn’t have a clue as to what you’d been through and what you had to carry. And at the same time, you had this attitude of, ‘You don’t know anything’ — a superiority complex — that further alienated you.”
Stories circulated of demonstrators spitting on troops back from the war and calling them “baby killers.” The veracity of such claims remains disputed. In “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam,” Jerry Lembcke investigated hundreds of media reports of protesters spitting on veterans and uncovered no supporting evidence.
He argues that President Richard Nixon’s administration concocted the narrative as part of its effort to weaken the peace movement, and likewise sought to trivialize antiwar veterans by dismissing their accounts of U.S. atrocities and failed military strategies.
“The veterans who spoke out were pathologized as ‘damaged’ as a way to discredit them,” said Lembcke, who deployed to Vietnam with the Army as a chaplain’s assistant. “And so some of them muted their voices.”
Movies released late in the war and soon afterward reinforced the image of the broken veteran. “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Taxi Driver,” among other films, branded returning troops as psychological casualties of war.
After feeling ignored and sometimes demonized, veterans saw Hollywood recast them as victims unable to reintegrate and apt to detonate. The portrayal deepened their reluctance to talk about Vietnam and what they endured.
“Most of us weren’t homeless or shooting from bell towers,” Marlantes said. “Most of the struggles happened quietly as you went about your life.” In his case, he married, helped raise four children and ran a consulting business while coping with anger, anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares. His condition strained his marriage until it collapsed. He later realized he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD was recognized as a clinical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, five years after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam. The designation reflected an emerging awareness among behavioral health providers of the mental trauma of combat veterans.
In 1978, Fred Gusman, a social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Menlo Park, Calif., had developed the country’s first residential therapy program for troops back from Vietnam. He had learned that they favored alcohol and drugs to tame their rage, depression and insomnia. He persuaded a group of them to try another approach, gathering them once a week to discuss the unseen wounds of combat.
The VA created variations of Gusman’s program across the country over the ensuing decades. But the expansion of behavioral health services has failed to erase the lingering stigma of the “troubled vet.” “People have to realize that the majority of veterans with PTSD manage it,” he said. “Asking for help is OK. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re forever broken.”
Gusman departed the VA in 2007 to establish The Pathway Home in Napa, Calif. The nonprofit residential treatment program works with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. He fears that, beyond the “thank you for your service” refrain that Americans offer to returning troops, the country has forgotten the lessons of Vietnam and, in turn, a new generation of veterans.
“Everyone says ‘Support the troops’ because of what went on during Vietnam,” Gusman said. “But we’ve seen how long it’s taken those veterans to heal — and that a lot of them didn’t — and if we don’t want a repeat of that, we have to do more than say thanks.”
Nixon withdrew most of the remaining U.S. troops from Southeast Asia in 1973, and Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces two years later. For the U.S., the war marked a military defeat, a political humiliation and a national tragedy.
In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, a divisive project for a divisive war. Critics derided artist Maya Lin’s design as “a black gash of shame.” Their scorn faded to silence as visitors flowed to the memorial, beckoned by its minimalist grace and subtle, unrelenting power.
Etched into the black, wedge-shaped wall are the names of 58,300 U.S. troops killed in the war. People standing before the wall can see their own reflection, a cue to remember the living veterans while honoring the fallen.
“The memorial has helped close wounds and open conversations for the Vietnam generation,” Gusman said. “It’s been a place of healing.”