Soldiers of Misfortune

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

"Bad paper"

The most prevalent troubles of the men who have not carved out satisfactory postwar lives are often interwoven. The sons of low income families stood the best chance of seeing combat and thus of being wounded. Today, these same men particularly the ones who were deemed "marginally qualified" for service are the least likely to benefit from the GI Bill and the least likely to have found jobs. By a rough estimate, based on research by President Ford's Clemency Board, Vietnam era veterans accounted for 10 percent of all prison inmates in the United States in the fall of 1974. If that figure is accurate, then the number of era veterans who have been to jail at one time or another must be very high indeed. Presumably those soldiers who came into the military from low income families or with low aptitude test scores stood the best chance of finding their way to jail. It is certain, in any case, that these are the men most likely to be burdened with what is known as "bad paper."

In Defense Department theory, there are five kinds of discharge for enlisted men: honorable, general under honorable conditions, undesirable, bad conduct, and dishonorable. But two surveys of employers, performed by presidential commissions, show that while distinctions do exist, the only good sort of discharge is a fully honorable one. All the rest make employers wary, so all the rest can properly be called bad paper.

The best available evidence indicates that between 125,000 and 150,000 men who actually went to the war are thus branded. In many cases, bad conduct and dishonorable discharges (known as "BCDs" and "DDs) were earned, though not in all, as anecdotal evidence suggests. But BCDs and DDs were at least administered by court martial under the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which respects some portions of the Bill of Rights. Those who were awarded general and undesirable discharges did not receive the protection of even military law. A preponderance of incriminating evidence, including anonymous testimony, could earn a soldier one of these less than honorable separation papers, and by far the largest amount of bad paper was of this "administrative" variety.

These were some of the offenses for which a soldier could receive a general or undesirable discharge: "character and behavior disorders" (the most commonly cited offense), "alcoholism," "financial irresponsibility," "homosexual tendencies," "homosexual acts," "inaptitude," "drug addiction," and "unsanitary habits" (a common offense rarely cited). Even Department of Defense, which has studied Vietnam era discharges, allows that general and undesirable separation papers were meted out in a completely arbitrary way, for standards varied enormously between the services and between commands within a single service, and men who committed identical offenses.

A soldier could be labeled a misfit even with a fully honorable discharge. A code the by now famous SPN code was typed onto every discharge form. Many SPN codes had unflattering meanings: they could describe a veteran as anything from a bed wetter to a person harboring "homosexual tendencies, desires or intentions." Clerks could easily alter these cods and there is evidence that lies were told and mistakes made. It might not have mattered a great deal if, as the military claimed, SPN codes were strictly for military use, but there is overwhelming evidence that the key to deciphering the codes fell into the hands of many civilian employers. Just how many soldier with fully honorable discharges received damaging SPN codes is unknown, but available data indicates that close to 200,000 veterans may have been affected. Lawrence Baskir was a member of the Ford Clemency Board. He has studied the bad paper question under a grant from the Ford Foundation and has collected a great deal of data on this and related issues in a forthcoming book called Chance and Circumstance. "I've run across dozens of cases of certifiable combat heroes who got back from Vietnam with time left in the service and who just couldn't stand picking up cigarette butts and waiting for their discharges. So they went AWOL and the military threw the book at them," Baskir said. Several other people who have worked in this area told me the same story. Obviously, some of the men back from Vietnam did deserve bad discharges, but often it seemed as if the military were bent on punishing men for having gone to the war. Certainly, no special allowances were made for those who had suffered over there.

A nineteen year old Marine whom I'll call Mitch O'Neil got hit with machine gun bullets and shrapnel in Vietnam. He was shipped back to the United States and wound up at Camp Pendleton. In spite of the fact that his digestive system was functioning by virtue of certain plastic parts, the Marine Corps kept him on active duty, and for some reason O'Neil began to fear that plans were being laid to send him back to Southeast Asia. As the saying goes, he went over the hill. In the hospital after Vietnam, he had become addicted to morphine. At Camp Pendleton he had been supplementing the drugs he got from the military doctors with street heroin. After he had run away from the Marines, O'Neil started robbing liquor stores for money to feed his habit. He got caught, naturally, and with some regrets a civilian judge sentenced him to eighteen months in jail. The Marine Corps promptly followed with an undesirable discharge, and O'Neil has been in serious legal trouble ever since.

Did the undesirable discharge hurt O'Neil? It excluded him from VA drug rehabilitation programs. It denied him the chance to go to school under the GI Ball, and on one occasion, when he was spitting up blood, it kept him out of a VA hospital in Denver. This is not to say that he would have attended college or gone for treatment of his addiction, simply that the discharge deprived him of those options. Perhaps more important, it gave him an excuse for failure. "He could always say, 'I got in trouble because of my bad discharge,'" his lawyer explained.

Baskir said, "It seems that many of the people who got drafted and went to Vietnam could be considered budding failures at the time when they went in. So it's not easy to attribute their problems afterwards to their discharges. But there's no question that bad discharges hurt." In retrospect it is at least arguable that the government ought not to have used these "budding failures" to fight its war and then discarded them. But what has happened is worse: the military has handed out thousands and thousands of discharges which virtually guarantee that "budding failures" will indeed live up to expectations.

One might think that a government bent on "binding the wounds of Vietnam" would look first at the cases of the men who had to fight the war and who are now saddled bad paper. But this has not been the case. Former draft dodgers have been pardoned en masse, but President Carter's Discharge Upgrade Program has been largely an empty promise. No one with a bad conduct or a dishonorable discharge is eligible to have his case reviewed, and Congress has decided that a soldier whose undesirable discharge is upgraded to a general discharge must still stand another review before he can receive veterans' benefits. Although the Ford Clemency Board discovered that most of the veterans in trouble would never know that they could ask for adjustments in their discharges, Congress forbade all advertising of Carter's program, and the results have been predictable. About 425,000 veterans were eligible for discharge reviews. When the deadline for applications had passed, in October 1977, only about 37,000 men had applied.

A different war?

Enough ordinarily reliable commentators have insisted that Vietnam was a "unique war" to ensure that it will be generally perceived that way, at least until the next one comes along. The New York Times has gone so far as to call it "The Different War" on the front page of its Sunday book review. In one of its many editorials lamenting the plight of Vietnam veterans, the Washington Post reported, "The war was different: limited in its objectives, unconventional in the way it was waged, bitterly controversial even in its early stages, eventually overwhelmingly unpopular and in the end unwon." With few alterations, though, that would serve as a description of the "Korean conflict," whose veterans did not return to parades either. The Civil War was as confusing morally as Vietnam, and for at least some Americans it too was "unwon." But, clearly, World War II is the unacknowledged standard for comparison, and of course it was very different from Vietnam. Indeed, it may be that World War II was the truly different war.

Vietnam veterans have been encouraged to see themselves as tragic heroes, outcast survivors of a nasty little war. World War II veterans have long been told that they were the happy warriors: it was tough, but the cause was good; they won "The Big One" for a grateful world. Actual distinctions between the wars, however, should be approached with caution. For soldiers, the salient features of battle have remained the same for centuries. They are confusion, terror, and death, and there is no reason to think that the men who landed on Iwo Jima suffered less than the men who assaulted the concrete, steel reinforced bunkers on Hamburger Hill in Vietnam.

Of course there are World War II veterans who really did enjoy their war, but a number of Vietnam veterans say they did, too. Some remembered good times and good fellowship; some former infantrymen, who looked back on the experience primarily with loathing, nevertheless felt a sense of accomplishment for having gotten through that extraordinary Outward Bound course.

Vietnam veterans are encouraged to believe that their war was different because they could not believe in it while they were fighting it. One wonders, though, how, many World War II and Vietnam veterans would recognize themselves in this statement of Max Cleland's: "All I thought about was booze, women, and keeping warm. I did not think about the eternal verities of the situation. I can't elucidate on the broad political questions of Vietnam. Mostly I was kinda lonesome, tired, and all the time I was in the war I wanted to get out of there."

Distinguishing between the two wars is especially difficult because Vietnam, like World War II, took very different shapes for different soldiers. The war changed from year to year and from place to place and it was not the same for all combat veterans. An infantryman stationed to the south on the coastal plain knew that it was at least in part a guerrilla war, and by 1968 he could easily see there was something wrong, because the "freedom loving" people whom he was supposed to be defending clearly didn't like him. In the north, however, it could be another story.

The son of an 82nd Airborne paratrooper who died at Normandy, a carefully dressed young man with a firm handshake, given to flexing the muscles of his jaw, Jack Williams was perhaps inclined from the outset to believe the war "worthwhile." Williams felt it was simply a matter of education; he had studied the Far East. "I just think I maybe understand more than most," he said. But clearly location was crucial. He spent his year with the Special Forces in the forbidding, gorgeous Highlands. There had not been many villages there to begin with, and by the time Williams arrived, most of them had vanished, casualties of the so called "zippo" Marine battalions. He did all his fighting against regular North Vietnamese Army troops, and the war seemed very simple: he was fighting to repel an invader from the north. He came home convinced the press was lying. "There was no guerrilla warfare," he told me one evening not long ago in a bar called Lee's Tomb in Tuscaloosa, Alabama "We were fighting tanks, and railway guns. There was no guerrilla warfare, man."

Most commentators seem to assume that the great majority of men who fought in Vietnam soon came to see that their war was unjust, wrongheaded, impossible. But there was never such a consensus and there isn't one today. A paralyzed veteran who eventually did denounce the war explained his initial reluctance to do so by saying, "Because I got hurt, it was harder, not easier, for me to speak against the war." Some Vietnam veterans still maintain that the war ought to have been won. But this is where the essential differences essential to soldiers, that is between World War II and Vietnam begin: with the fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, that the war was lost. Veterans like Jack Williams are some of the last true believers in America, and they cannot help but feel angry and terribly alone, holding to convictions that few will even listen to today.

It is in its aftermath that Vietnam has been most unlike World War II. It has been a much harder war for veterans, both coming home and looking back. Welcomes were cold or downright hostile. The war lost. And virtually no civilian will now say that it was worth fighting. I spoke to a VA psychiatrist who spent several years treating Vietnam veterans with severe psychological problems. This doctor insists the war's special characteristics have had important effects on his patients. Afflicted by guilt and lingering fears, some struggle to believe that they were doing right thing. They cannot console themselves with the thought that at least they were winners. Moreover they see that their sacrifices have not been appreciated or even widely acknowledged. So they are in a bind: they can't comfort themselves, and society won't show them the way.

Something pulling him back

When Mark Templeton returned and was being mustered out of the Army in Oakland with an honorable discharge and several medals, including a Bronze Star with a V device, an officer asked him, as a matter of standard operating procedure, if he felt all right. "If I tell him, they might not let me out of the Army," Mark thought. So he signed a statement that he was feeling fine, but about two years later he had to commit himself to a VA psychiatric hospital. There appear to have been many men who, like Mark, hid their problems for a time. Until 1968, the psychiatric casualty rate in Vietnam seemed remarkably low compared to that of other wars, but today it is clear bat it was just as high for Vietnam as for World War II.

"Everybody has a childhood and a genetic makeup," the VA psychiatrist now treating Mark said, explaining how two soldiers could be exposed to the same outward experiences and one come away unharmed while the other returned with an enduring mental problem. Mark's mother died when he was young and be was raised in a small town in western Massachusetts by a kindly grandmother and an aunt and uncle. But he was a "normal boy," with average grades in school, and his psychiatrist has found no reason to believe that Mark was destined for trouble. VA psychiatrists told me that the men who return from combat with sound minds should be viewed as examples of the "remarkable resiliency" of human beings. They reminded me, too, that many of these men may have paid a price for sanity, that some have had to "restructure their characters entirely, to withstand the pressures of war." In Mark's case, the war may not have been the single source of all his problems, but it was clearly a sufficient cause.

An infantryman, he spent fourteen months in Vietnam, most of them out in the field with the 101st Airborne. In that time, he helped dig up mass graves which were located by smell; watched bulldozers move bodies around; and stared at comrades' intestines floating in a river they had been killed by misdirected American fire. Once he got a black eye when a piece of a friend's skull flew off and hit him in the face. One evening at sunset he stood looking at a pile of full body bags. There were twenty seven lying there. Earlier, he had helped stuff some of them with the corpses of friends. "The gook dogs were licking the bags. I was gonna get my 16 and fire up them goddamn dogs. But then I saw an arch, you know the McDonald's arch? It wasn't like that, just the shape. It was a golden aura around these twenty seven KIA's."

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In