Soldiers of Misfortune

A report on the veterans of Vietnam—and on the often disgraceful treatment they have received from their countrymen.

"I'm playing cards in a house trailer with this guy who didn't go to Nam, and then I hear explosions far off and I get up and start walking toward the explosions. They're calling me back. 'It's time to come back now.'" —The dream of an ex-rifleman of the 101st Airborne Division

A carpeted hallway leads to the office of the administrator at Veterans Administration headquarters in Washington. On the way, one passes a bathroom equipped with steel handrails. Doorways are wide, large enough for a small vehicle to go through, and in the spacious office itself furniture is arranged so that there are broad avenues between. An odd bronzed object sits in one corner. It looks as if it might have been some medieval instrument of torture, and I felt embarrassed to stare at it. At its base is a squarish foot. A short, hollow, conical leg, about the size and shape of an inverted wastebasket, rises from it. A few inches above the top there is a metal hoop, wired to the device like a halo. This is one of the prosthetic training legs-he calls them "little stubbies"-in which Max Cleland clumped around for too many months after he got back from Vietnam. Someone at the VA hospital in Washington found the thing and had it bronzed after Cleland became famous. Cleland, who is the new chief of the VA, says he thinks of the leg as a reminder of his professional duty to veterans. "Kind of a grim reminder," he said.

Everyone has heard the story of the lucky person who got to the airport a few minutes late and missed a plane that later crashed. Cleland is the person who made it to the airport just in time for disaster. He didn't have to go to Vietnam in the first place; he was a general's aide back in the United States. But he volunteered. A signal officer in the First Air Cavalry Division, he got safely through most of his tour. He was almost out of there the day he flew by helicopter to a hilltop near Khe Sanh. He disembarked, and when the helicopter lifted off, Cleland looked back and saw a hand grenade lying on the ground, in the spot where the chopper had been. It is not known how the grenade came to be there or who had pulled the pin and why, but Cleland assumed it wasn't live. He walked over to it.

Cleland came from Georgia. He was a pretty good basketball player at Stetson College. When he reached down for the grenade, he was six foot three, a fair-haired, husky youth with the sort of glorious designs on the future that JFK inspired in many well-bred boys. A moment later, before he had even touched the fragmentation grenade, an awful metamorphosis took place. He was knocked backward. His ears still ringing from the explosion, he looked at himself and saw that his right hand and wrist were no longer there. His right leg was gone, and he could see his left foot sitting a little distance away in his jungle boot. Eventually the whole left leg would also have to come off. He didn't look again.

Cleland spent the next nine days in a field hospital in Tuy Hoa, in an intensive care unit that was in actuality a Quonset hut with five big lights in the ceiling and two air-conditioners. "When I came back and saw M*A*S*H, I thought it was a documentary. Where I was it was just gory and gross; and there was a nurse, she was psychologically numbed, she was every bit as much a war casualty as I was. It was about the third day and my two legs were open as slabs of beef and my right arm was just there. A bone. She changed the dressings on all three of them at once and I got one shot of Demerol out of the deal. I damn near passed out. It was an all-time gory Civil War-type scene." He dreaded nine P.M. when the lights went out. There were MPs in the room to guard the nurses from the Vietcong and North Vietnamese patients, and after the hut went dark, he would hear the MPs and his nurses making love in the corners.

"But I lived."

Cleland went first to a military hospital. Here he found many other young men who had lost pieces of themselves, peers to chastise and encourage him, and, later on, freshly wounded men for whom he could do the same. But all too soon he was transferred to the VA hospital in Washington. He had been through his grieving time, he had done some walking on the "little stubbies," he felt he was ready now to rebuild an identity. But he needed certain basic things: a car, a job, some legs. For months he pleaded with the head of rehabilitation for some up-to-date prosthetic legs. She told him he wasn't ready yet.

Cleland struggled a long, lonely time. There were disheartening, unnecessary setbacks. Once, he contemplated suicide. Finally, he requested a transfer to the prosthetics center in New York, and in the summer of 1969, he got what he calls "the satisfaction that I thought my government could provide me." The people in New York gave him a set of laminated plastic limbs with hydraulic knees. "I put 'em on and walked out of there in November 1969. Nobody will ever be able to convince me that the whole shebang couldn't have been handled in five months instead of almost two years." He went back to Georgia and ran for the legislature. He won. He made friends there with the Carters. In 1977, when President Carter made Cleland the head of the VA, the two men hugged each other as old friends do. Cleland is the first Vietnam veteran to run the VA. He is only thirty-four.

"Quite a success story," I told him.

"Or else a very revealing study of political ambition," he replied, beaming. Cleland enjoys talking about his political ambitions. He has said that he would like to be governor of Georgia and he has been known to gaze out the window above his desk; across Lafayette Park toward the White House, and say, "Anything's possible." At the same time, he speaks in awed tones about the position he has already attained: "Never in those dark days did I think I would be the administrator of the VA." If such apparent openness is a strategy, a way of defusing possible criticism, it is one Cleland learned from his wounds. He jokes about his missing limbs. He flaunts their absence, and the effect is that one's attention is soon diverted.

It was somehow stirring, the kind of scene, swells the chest, to watch Cleland bustle around his office. A double amputee using artificial limbs expends five to ten times as much energy as an able-bodied person. Cleland had to give up his plastic legs a few years ago; they were painful and exhausting. Now he moves around in a wheelchair. When he takes a break from paperwork, he spins away from his desk across the floor, jumps out onto his couch, and, tucking his pants legs under him, assumes a casual posture, the stump of his right arm hung on the back of the sofa.

It was evening when I visited him. He had his jacket off and his tie loosened. He is a bit overweight, but his left arm is huge, his shoulders and trunk look powerful. After awhile I found my imagination supplying his missing limbs. When he gestured with his left hand and right stump together, to emphasize a point, I had the feeling that his right hand and wrist were actually there. From time to time, while talking, he would pick up a little sponge ball and toss it with his left hand at a miniature basketball hoop mounted on the inside of his office door, over a sign that reads "LOVE LIFE." He shot. Missed. "I love shooting baskets." Shot again. Swish. "I'll shoot baskets anywhere. Anytime."

On the wall above Cleland's bronzed leg are clocks that tell the time in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Juneau. His domain stretches that far. The VA runs 171 hospitals and myriad programs in areas such as insurance, home loans, pensions, education, and burial, at a cost to taxpayers of about $20 billion a year. Clients and potential clients are all of America's more than 30 million living veterans and their dependents, a number which includes roughly 300 pensioned widows and children of Civil War veterans. Cleland has been given command of one of the largest bureaucracies in the government, and he comes to it in a troubled time. Some of the important problems he faces have little to with Vietnam, but the most visible ones concern the veterans of Cleland's own war.

The United States sent 2,796,000 soldiers to Vietnam: 57,002 died, and 300,000 were wounded-about 150,000 seriously enough to be hospitalized. About 75,000 were left severely handicapped, and some 25,000 came home totally disabled. But information on what happened to the wounded and to the rest of the survivors is sketchy. To some extent, Vietnam veterans have been, as one observer puts it, "tarred with the brush of My Lai." Several TV police shows have cast the Vietnam veteran in the role of an angry, confused young man who has brought the war home in duffel bag full of heroin and automatic weapons. There is evidence that some employers are afraid of men who do not hide the fact that they served in Vietnam, and I have spoken to several professional representatives of Vietnam veterans who seem to want to think that their constituents are indeed dangerous men. Again and again, I heard people say that the three of four well-publicized instances of soldiers going berserk when they got home were merely "harbingers," "the tip of an iceberg."

Against these stereotypes and melodramatic speculations stand a body of statistics and several studies. The statistics are inadequate, partly because they do not generally distinguish between the soldiers who to Vietnam and the roughly 5 million others who served elsewhere during the "Vietnam era." As for the studies, some seem marred by the preconceptions of the researchers, none seems truly comprehensive, and several are unfinished. But the studies and the VA's statistics do seem to show that, while it was a rough journey for many, and though many may carry scars, the great majority of Vietnam veterans have made satisfactory readjustments to civilian life. At the same time, a significant number - one in five, according to the VA - appear to be having problems: with employment, drugs, their own psyches, their marriages, the law.

Little is known about the nature and extent of these lingering post-Vietnam blues, and that is one of Cleland's pressing concerns. He's going to do something about the information gap, he said. He spoke with enthusiasm, leaning forward on his sofa. He declared, "It's now time to take a full assessment of the impact of the war on the guys who served."

A truly full assessment will be difficult. I was a soldier in Vietnam and have talked to a number of those who went. It is always hard to know if a veteran's problems stem from his war, hard to know even for the veteran himself. Not all the war's effects can be precisely defined. Not all are obvious. Everyday life in America accommodates an enormous amount of strange and violent, buried experience. Much of the story of the war lies far away from Cleland's office, in both odd and ordinary places, in jails and bars and peaceful-looking houses on quiet streets in little towns.

I remember flying home from Vietnam on the so-called "freedom bird." It was a Flying Tiger Lines commercial jet. On board, some of the jubilant GI's pinched the stewardesses because they had round eyes. The boy in the seat beside me slept with a grin on his face. We flew so far, first to Japan and then to Travis Air Force Base, and life seemed to be proceeding so normally at home, that I thought the war had vanished. But last winter, when I traveled around to find some of the men who had gone as boys to Vietnam, the war did not seem to have ended after all. In fact, it seemed obvious that no war ends until all the people who have I participated in it have died or lost their memories.


Still nursing the incurable phsical wounds he received as a Marine infantry scout, Rocco Gianbrocco sat before his TV set and muttered angrily the night the POWs came back from North Vietnam and got handshakes from the President on prime time. When Rocco had come home several years earlier, he had been immediately confronted with an antiwar demonstration. Later, when he found the girl he wanted to marry he learned to his surprise that his prospective father-in-law considered him unsuitable. "He's a killer. He killed people over there," the man told Rocco's fiancée. A thirty-two-year-old lawyer remembered a similar homecoming. A Harvard graduate, he had been one of those who didn't have to go, but he had read his Hemingway and taken it to heart, he said. He spent a year leading a platoon of Marines through the awful Highlands, and he returned hysterical, plagued with memories: of prisoners being tortured to death; of scores of young Marines lying dead in a valley, the victims of his battalion commander's craving for a Silver Star. He wept whenever he visited his parents, shouted at anyone he could find in a position of authority, and finally contemplated suicide. His old friends and acquaintances were no help.

He soon learned to avoid them and all cocktail parties because everyone asked questions that made him feel "like a curiosity in zoo," and because sooner or later someone would ask him the inevitable question: "Did you kill anyone? Did you?"

A black man who served with the Marines in Vietnam, and is now serving time in the San Francisco County Jail, said people in the ghetto were waiting for GI's to return, because GI's were flush with separation pay and were easy to fleece. "But what fucked my head-the people saying, 'Yeah, you're over there fighting for the white man and we catchin' it from him here. Yeah, man, you one fucking dumb-ass nigger."

Living on the Bill

Was there any place where returning Vietnam veterans were honored and welcome? I felt sure that if there was, it would be a town like Birmingham Alabama. Steel is made in Birmingham. From the highway the mills look like castles. Tracts of little houses are clustered in the shadows of their smoke. Birmingham's Veterans Day parade is perennially one of the nation's largest and snappiest, and the are always many black faces in the ranks. Birmingham was far from being a hotbed of antiwar fervor, yet for a black soldier coming home from Vietnam, the reception was much the same as it was anywhere else. "The people didn't treat you no different," said Marion Tyson. "It was like, 'Hey, man, I ain't seen you in a long time. Where you been? You been in jail?"

Tyson, who has a high school education, served with the 101st Airborne. He was in Saigon for the 1968 Tet offensive. "I was one of them Westmoreland put on top of the Embassy," he said. He laughed, he put his head down and shook it, remembering what rough, untamed fellows he and his comrades had been. "And then Westmoreland put us out of town!" He showed me his discharge papers, which listed his medals: The Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, several campaign, or "I been there," ribbons, and a Purple Heart. Nothing extraordinary, but proof of distinguished service in combat. Tyson said he remembered some good times in Vietnam and he had done well; he was an expert in the use of the 81-milimeter mortar and rose to the rank of sergeant E-5. But he got in trouble after Vietnam. By the time he was mustered out of the Army a year later with an honorable discharge, he had been busted back to private E-1, the lowest rank there is.

Tyson had joined the service because he couldn't find a job. He is now thirty-two and he still hasn't got one. "I started looking for a job, but, you know, the majority of jobs, the applications really is too hard for me to fill out. Then sometime, they give you tests, and I don't know the answers."

I was talking to Tyson in the dean's office of a small institution called Southern Junior College for Business, which specializes in giving courses to people who qualify for educational assistance programs such as the GI Bill. This business college appears to be a profitable business in itself. Tuition is higher than at most public colleges, but one need not have mastered rudimentary reading and writing skills in order to be admitted. There were two other black Vietnam veterans sitting on the worn vinyl sofa in the office: a former medic named Willie Davis who lost one kidney, part of his stomach, and several front teeth in Vietnam; and a former clerk named David Williams who, according to one of his teachers, needs remedial reading and writing courses.

"I could have got a job maybe cleaning up," Tyson added.

"That's the only thing the Army trains you for," said Willie Davis, a huge, heavy man with a slight lisp, caused no doubt by the missing teeth. "Cleaning up."

'Yeah, well, the reason I can't get the job I want," Tyson continued, "I don't have the education. The only thing I know how to do is keel. I can be a hit man." Everybody laughed.

Tyson said he had begun drinking after the war. He was sober during the interview and was dressed in his best clothes-plaid pants, plaid vest, and a mismatching brown jacket. He wears a small beard, and often a sly smile. David Williams, tall and thin, just twenty-seven, sat stiffly in a pale green suit, his old Army overcoat folded neatly on his lap. Willie Davis did most of the talking. All three men were unemployed. Davis had an additional problem; private companies are reluctant to hire anyone with chronic ailments like his. I asked them what jobs they would like to have. Davis said he wanted to be a nurse but his disability prevented that. Tyson didn't answer.

After a short silence, David Williams murmured, "Be the boss." Tyson grinned. But the men seemed to have few illusions about what an education at the business college was going to do for them. Williams had been enrolled there under the GI Bill, but had recently quit. He was thinking of re-enlisting in the Army, because he didn't feel he was getting anywhere in school and because something had gone wrong and his VA checks had not been coming. Willie Davis was studying at the college under a special VA educational program for disabled veterans. Tyson was there under the GI Bill, taking courses in "marketing," "accounting," and "business management." One of his teachers told me, "To be perfectly honest, Tyson probably isn't going to get a job."

Willie Davis explained it all. "We gotta take care of the GI Bill. That's the way we live." For Tyson, GI Bill payments were the sole means of support, more an income maintenance program than an educational one. He was getting about $425 a month from the Bill, the college was taking about a quarter of that for tuition, and he and his wife and children were living on the rest. Though Willie Davis scoffed at him for saying it, Tyson insisted that he and his family were getting along all right and were eating a lot of macaroni.

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