Like any war veteran, I’m happy to get some recognition for my service. That’s what Veterans’ Day is all about. A grateful country pauses and gives us a well-earned pat on the back and I like that. But it hasn’t always been this way. When we returned to “The World,” as we called the US, soldiers of the Vietnam War did not receive the gratitude that we should have gotten. Americans suffer from historical amnesia. Therefore, let me remind you about the baby-killer epithets and the encounters with the ubiquitous “hippy chick” who spat at returning soldiers. She got around, that fierce anti-war, granny glasses-wearing, long-skirted, peasant-bloused young lady. We can surmise that, given all the stories you hear about her.
This kind of insult happened to some and it was bad enough. But something much worse happened to most of us. I refer to the cold-shoulder treatment we got. What hurt most of all, what has caused lasting emotional trauma, is that people ignored us, looked right through us as if we were invisible. Our countrymen ignored us, shunned us, wanted nothing to do with us because we reminded them of a very unpopular war. It was bad, and truth be told, this is the main cause of PTSD among Vietnam veterans. We won all the battles but we lost the war. This is the main cause of post-traumatic stress syndrome. If you lose a war, you lose not only a battlefield victory, you lose the soldiers when they come home. They just can’t seem to fit back into society.
This is especially true for a country that is not accustomed to losing its wars. Only a heartfelt, warm embrace from the people in whose name we fought our war can save us from PTSD. Vietnam is over, and the good news is that most of the men who fought there are now healing, however incompletely. But this does not bode well for the soldiers of present and future wars. Veterans of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, wars that have no closure, no definitive end (we are still conducting operations and drone and air strikes in these countries), will repeat the Vietnam era cycle. Wars that do not end in a clear-cut manner always have this effect. Lucky for them that the country seems to have learned a lesson and will not treat these young men the way we older veterans were treated.
If you stop and think about it, there are two ways to honor veterans. You can do the usual patriotic things, praising us as the defenders of American freedoms, thanking us for our service, cheering us at the annual Veterans’ Day parade, and giving us a free lunch. It’s good to do this. But for those of us who do much pondering, this can start to ring hollow.
Many of us are looking for something else. We want to be honored, but with insights into our minds and hearts. We want honesty and truth about which wars can be won and which are lost before they even start. This did not happen with Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most of all we want our leaders to send us to war only with the greatest reluctance. In 2014, two friends of mine, Sarah Hautzinger and Jean Scandlyn, published a book, Beyond Post-Traumatic Stress: Homefront Struggles with the Wars on Terror. Their book is a deep study. It seeks to move us from a simplistic view of PTSD as “the unseen wound of war,” to be treated privately and discreetly by “experts.” In their view, we need a much broader perspective, one that sees wars and the men who fight them not as separate from the civilian world but as intimately connected on many levels to the homefront.
What the military establishment, veterans, their families and civilian peers need is much greater dialogue. The questions they raise are: What can heal veterans? What can help them reintegrate and resume their lives? What can end the suicide epidemic and the madness of war violence brought to the homefront? One answer is dialogue sessions in which veterans are not judged but accepted, and in which military commanders, veterans, spouses, families, friends, members of the public and politicians come together as equals, able to establish the channels of communication which are too often lacking. This is what I wish would happen this Veterans’ Day.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS. He teaches Mexico/U.S. Border Studies and U.S. Military History.