Soldiers of Misfortune

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

Facing these and similar scenes, he had one recurring thought: "I can't believe this is happening!" He felt that someone should hide his face from these sights as parents hide their children's faces from scenes of auto wrecks. But one kept such feelings to oneself; the only means of self expression was: "Put your 16 on rock 'n' roll and fire up some gooks."

"It's not human. Not human," he says. "Everything is numb. But after all that stuff builds up inside you, fear goes away and it's replaced by something worse, and I think that's hatred."

In the terrible battle known as Hamburger Hill, Mark's company was decimated. They had assaulted for the third or fourth time and were regrouping some distance away in thick green jungle. Mark was operating the commander's radio, and over the roar of jets and thumping of bombs, he received a message directed to his own service number. His grandmother had died. The Red Cross requested immediate compassionate leave for Mark. He was put on board a Medevac helicopter at once, then onto a CH 47, then a jet bound for California. Snatched from battle, he traveled all the way to California in filthy jungle clothes. His dog tags were still laced into his boots; soldiers going into battle were often told to wear, their tags there on the theory that a dead man's boots would be found even if the man himself was scattered. He could hardly speak to the other soldiers on the jet, because they were going home for good. They had taken showers and had put on fresh clothes, and they stared at him. He got a shower and a clean uniform in Oakland.

It was like moving through a dream. On the airplane that took him to Boston, he began to cry, not for his grandmother, but for reasons he still can't explain. "It was just too much." He attended the funeral. He felt all his relatives looked at him oddly, and his beloved aunt, whose name he sometimes called out during fire fights, said, "Mark, your eyes are gray. You have beautiful blue eyes, but now your eyes are gray." The funeral accomplished, war could resume. He went right back to Vietnam. Hamburger Hill had ended by the time he got there, but Bobby, the boy who had taken Mark's place as radio man, had been killed. "Did my grandmother and Bobby die to save my life?"

Mark wondered. He is still wondering that today.

Mark's nine years since Vietnam have included a disastrous marriage, several jobs, and moves from New England to California and back again, with many unsatisfactory stops at VA hospitals. Today he lives in a small apartment in a converted barn, with a woman his age who has given him some strength, he says. He has finally found a VA psychiatrist whom he trusts and respects, and this year for the first time he is receiving a 100 percent psychiatric disability pension which pays him $750 a month. Yet he is essentially where he has been for the last decade. He is frozen in time. He spends days reliving and reordering events and battles, trying to find the reason that he survived and so many of his friends did not. "It isn't fair," he said to me. In California I met two medics consumed by undeserved guilt over comrades who died in their arms; both still did not fully believe that those men were dead. Mark's sense of guilt seemed comparable. He said his guilt washes over him. He has no control over these memories and feelings. They just keep coming at him and he tries to face them. But they do not go away. He has seen Vietnamese with guns in the woods of Massachusetts. In California once, an Oriental woman became the bloody image of the pregnant woman he shot by accident while searching a village long ago in Vietnam. The woman turned, all bloody, and pointed at him on the street. He ran.

Most combat veterans I talked to said that they had dreamed a great deal about Vietnam after their return, but most said those dreams were fading now. Mark still dreams, at least one night a week. Sometimes he finds himself standing on a high plateau looking down at a lovely river, strange circular clouds hanging just above the pine trees. It must be Colorado, he thinks. But he is dressed in jungle fatigues. Then, far away, he hears explosions and he feels something pulling him back toward them. "It's a scene of beauty and then it's almost like a hand drawing me away, back to the war."

Mark has long reddish hair which he keeps in a ponytail and a Fu Manchu moustache which might look sinister except that the face behind it is open, almost boyish. Indeed, he is only in his late twenties. "Mark" is a pseudonym; he is afraid that he might be punished for killing the pregnant Vietnamese woman if "They" knew his name. He speaks almost in a whisper on the phone. But he talked for hours the evening I visited him. There were moments when his voice sounded a melodramatic note, but for the most part he spoke plainly, and there was no crying. He has not been violent since Vietnam. He says he will never touch a gun again.

"I want to be normal," he said. "I think it's a pretty fucked up thing to say, 'Oh, I've accepted this and there's nothing I can do about it.'" He is afraid that he might be using Vietnam as an excuse for failure. But he feels he can't work now. He needs his VA pension. He feels that he deserves it, though he senses others do not. "Many times I wish to God that I had holes all over me so I could say to them, 'Here's what you did to me.'" He was sitting on a sofa next to me, his legs drawn up under him. Now he lowered his brows and narrowed his eyes. "I just think they owe me that fucking money." The light was strange. He showed his teeth for a moment. It was the only time I felt that I had a glimpse of the soldier boy who as an artillery forward observer and rifleman was "good for, I bet, a couple hundred gooks." "They will take my disability away over my dead body," he said. Then he looked away and rubbed his hand across his mouth.

Just before I left, Mark said that he had joined 101st Airborne Association after he got back. He said, "You know, they have this deal where you can go over on a tour and visit the drop zones where you landed in Europe on D Day. But who's gonna go back to Vietnam? It wasn't D Day or Normandy." He was talking about the dreaded Ashau valley and Hamburger Hill. He held up his hand, showing me a small space between his thumb and forefinger. "It was only six digits on a map and what the fuck do they mean now? There's gotta be respect for people who fought the war. Anybody that makes a sacrifice in war is worthy of respect." His eyes were wide. He asked, "Doesn't it even mean anything now? Doesn't it matter to anyone?"

Repairing the damage

For five years Congress has considered and not passed a bill that would provide "readjustment counseling" to Vietnam era veterans still in need of guidance. It seems a typical performance. Congress and successive administrations have failed the troops they sent to Vietnam in many ways. Any list of particulars must include: an inflexible GI Bill, which for many years was also financially inadequate; a succession of unsuccessful employment projects; and amnesty programs that have been far less generous to soldiers than to civilian war resisters.

The Veterans Administration, in particular, has much to answer for. Intentionally or not, VA bureaucrats have managed personally to insult a great many Vietnam veterans. In general, the VA's conduct has been anything but kindly and efficient. Most shocking has been the treatment war wounded men received at some VA hospitals. VA administrators have not been entirely to blame, and some of the 171 VA institutions have consistently provided excellent care for the wounded. But there is no question that the entire system was in decline when Vietnam began. There were critical shortages of nurses, attendants, therapists, and even equipment. Some facilities had grown dilapidated, and wounded men, who surely deserved the best of all possible care, shared their sickbeds with rodents.

VA hospitals had long been open to all needy veterans regardless of the source of their medical problems and at the start of the Vietnam War, the VA system was primarily a refuge for the indigent. Then as now, 70 percent of the patients were veterans whose ailments had nothing to do with military service. For the most part, they were elderly and middle aged men. Inevitably, the hospitals had come to emphasize maintenance care and many were not ready to provide for the flood of severely wounded soldiers from Vietnam. Nor did the VA do all it might for the severely wounded once they left the hospitals. War-made paraplegics have been well provided for in terms of cash; a man with 100 percent physical disability receives roughIy the equivalent of $25,000 a year. But many of the severely wounded were adolescents. Many lacked education and the habit of success. Many had parents who-quite understandably, but disastrously were inclined to feed their sons' inevitable self pity. Yet the VA never tried to prepare parents for their wounded sons' return, and did next to nothing to set these boys on paths toward useful careers. Estimates vary, but something like 50 percent of the disabled and 80 percent of the paralyzed are unemployed today. Many languish unhappily, with nothing much to live for, and I heard of several who committed suicide after they left the hospital. Our national veterans policy seems to be misguided. Most people will agree that public expenditures for former soldiers should go primarily to assist those who have been injured in military service and to help bring the men fresh from war back into the fold. But federal policy tends to spread benefits thinly, so that a great many get something to be grateful for (presumably they will reward their legislators at election time). Meanwhile, the relative few whose needs are truly related to military service tend to get short shrift. The situation will probably get worse. Under existing law, the hospital system remains open to all veterans. Those over 65 not only have a statutory entitlement to VA medical care regardless of financial need, but they are also eligible to receive VA pensions. There are 13 million World War II veterans. Their average age is fifty six. According to very rough estimates, the annual cost of pensions could rise from about $3.5 billion in 1978 to about $7.5 billion in 1995. Senator Alan Cranston is attempting a reform, but the reformed program would also be expensive and would still constitute a large welfare program just for veterans. Aside from the question of whether or not existing policies and such possible reforms are fair to non veteran Americans is question of how great a burden the World War II veterans are going to place on the VA's substantial but finite resources. If the VA's energies are increasingly directed toward this group, which has been described as "a wave about to break," what will happen if there is another war anytime soon?

Enter Max Cleland. Circumstances and his position have given him an influential voice. His appointment in 1977 was approved by acclamation in the Senate. He is a well-known, popular figure.

To the dismay of the many small, disorganized Vietnam veterans groups, Cleland has so far spoken mainly for the status quo. He has backed off from a former position on the GI Bill: he once said that it should be modeled more closely after the World War II Bill, but now he claims that the Vietnam Bill is adequate. He has done no more than support Carter's limited Discharge Upgrade Program. He has spoken for keeping the VA hospital system open to all indigent veterans. And he has avoided some issues. He told me that he planned to "maximize" the VA's job training efforts, but he was quick to insist that it wasn't really his problem. "The Department of Labor has the ball." Because of these positions, some spokesmen for Vietnam veterans groups have decided that Cleland is their enemy or at best an empty symbol. They point to his age and inexperience and contend that he will never figure out how to reform middle level management.

In Cleland's defense, one can say that impossible expectations attended his appointment. He has been in office only a year, and it has not been an entirely fruitless one. Even his critics believe that he will improve the hospital system; in fact he has already begun. He has spoken strongly for the readjustment counseling program. He has launched a "sensitivity campaign," placing special emphasis on educating VA personnel to the problems of Vietnam veterans, and while sensitivity may be hard to create through executive orders, no one can argue that it isn't worth trying.

It seems fitting that Cleland, one of the soldiers who suffered from a cold welcome at the hands of the VA, should now be in a position to begin to set things right. It is obvious that he wants to do so. But is Cleland in that position? Is there any such position anymore? Cleland told me, "Next year we should move for the first time to identify the basic readjustment problems of the Vietnam veteran and tailor a program to meet the needs of those who have the problems." He spoke with mounting enthusiasm. There would be a comprehensive study. The remaining problems would be clarified and addressed.

Of course, a great deal might still be done, but as I traveled around the United States, I was surprised to see how many of the youths who fought in Vietnam had acquired paunches and strands of gray hair. It appears that Congress will at last pass the bill to create a "readjustment counseling" program. A high level VA psychologist, Dr. Charles Stenger, described the program's purpose as follows: "If you can help a person soon after separation, it will prevent him from having many possible problems in the difficult but normal process of adjusting to civilian life." But for men who went to Vietnam, the time is hardly ripe. The readjustment program won't catch them right after separation from the military, because most got out years ago. As for the promise of a comprehensive study, it seems tardy at best. "Talk about doing things ass backwards," one Vietnam veteran remarked. "Let me put it this way. The study, when and if it comes, will be a postmortem."

And yet no postmortem can be written. Many soldiers have not gotten over the war, and of course that would be the case even if the government had applied needed balm in time. War does lingering damage. No amount of money and programs can repair all of it.

"I'll do it myself"

I asked Bobby Muller if there wasn't some chance that a team of surgical wizards would find a way to fix up busted spinal cords. Muller replied, "The spinal cord is similar in dimension and consistency to a tube of toothpaste. Through that run millions of neurons. So once you break that, how are you ever gonna put it back together?" But he didn't seem depressed about it.

When he was twenty-two and still had an appetite for war, Muller told fellow junior Marine officers that if he lost so much as a leg in Vietnam he would wish to die. A year or so later, on a hillside near Con Thien, he took a bullet through his chest. He remembers lying on his back, looking at the sky, and as he began to lose consciousness he said to himself in amazement, "I'm dyin'. I don't believe it. I'm gonna die on this shitty fucking ground." Afterward, life would always seem to him less a natural right than a precious, interesting gift.

He woke up on hospital ship U.S.S. Repose. It could have had a different name: strapped in a Stryker frame, he heard other young soldiers crying for their mothers, while nurses changed the dressings on the boys' fresh amputations. But Muller was grateful, almost euphoric. A harried looking doctor leaned over him and thanked him for surviving they had been losing too many patients on that boat. Muller put a finger over the hole that the surgeons had cut in his trachea and said in a hoarse voice, "Glad to accommodate ya, Doc." Later, he learned that he had made it to surgery with only a minute to spare, and then only because of a series of lucky accidents, and this strengthened his feeling that the mere fact of life was miraculous.

He swears he didn't grieve when the doctors told him that he was three quarters paralyzed, and at the naval hospital where he was sent next, there was no time for sorrow. It wasn't permitted. Every day he was taken to physical therapy whether he felt like going or not. The wards were immaculate. There were only two men to a room. Uncooperative attendants lost their weekend passes and soon mended their ways. While he was there, he was put in a wheelchair for an hour or so a day. "And you gotta know what that means after eight weeks in a frame. You can go to the water fountain by yourself. That's freedom, man, that's independence." But he was at that place only six weeks, and, then he was transferred to the Kingsbridge VA Hospital in the Bronx.

Muller had not cried once about his wound, but when he was carried to the door of his new room at Kingsbridge and saw what awaited him inside, began to weep and couldn't stop for a day. It had dreary bluish green walls and contained ten beds jammed closely together. There would be no privacy or quiet there. A TV, a radio, and a record player were all blaring at once. The place smelled of urine, for drainage bags attached to the sides of the striken men's beds often went unemptied and overflowed onto the floor. One does not have to take Muller's word these things. In 1970 Life magazine did a cover story about the ward where Muller lived, and it is all there in photographs: the crowded, grimy looking rooms, traps which the more able bodied patients set to try and keep rats and mice off the beds at night, and-most frightening of all to Muller the hopeless look of the patients. Many were old men who had been there for years, and there was no sign of activity. Although it was late morning, no one was even dressed. He wept while the attendants carried him to his bed because, he said, it seemed to him that he was being taken to the end of the line, to live in his grave.

It didn't turn out that way, but only because Muller struggled: with the doctor who did not want to give him a wheelchair right away and who later tried to deny him the body brace which Muller needed in order to prove to himself that he could walk if he had to; with the psychologist whom he liked but who kept teIIing him that he should go off in a corner and cry for for himself; with the evening attendant who said he was too busy to help Muller get from his bed to his wheel. ("All right. Fuck you. I'll do it myself," he said, and he proceeded to learn the difficult, frightening art of "transferring" without assistance.) Eventually, he managed to walk, in a brace, with Canadian crutches. He did this, hurling himself down the hallways and inching his way up the stairs of the hospital (there were no special training stairs available), in spite of the fact that there were only two physical therapists there who were offering something more than "courses in how to make waIlets." These men were overworked and sometimes Muller had to wait three hours just to get ten minutes with them.

Muller stayed a year in Kingsbridge and then he went home to his parents. He did not feel that he had been encouraged or helped in any way to find a useful life out in the world. When he left the hospital, a doctor told him that he should go home, buy a big car with his government check, and "tear up" the streets of his old neighborhood; it was the same sort of message he had been given by the psychologist who wanted him to cry.

Muller had resources. He was older than many of the war wounded, he had a college education, and his parents knew that the worst thing they could do for him would be to let him mope around feeling sorry for himself. He also had a goal now: he wanted to be a lawyer so that someday he might be able to sue the VA.

Bobby Muller is a paradigm of what was worst about the war and best about many of the men who had to fight it. His paralysis begins at the nipples. Below he is diminished. Above, in the shoulders and arms, he seems wiry and able. He wears a full brown beard and his face is thin, not unhealthy looking but experienced. He appears older than thirty one. He has the look of a historical figure.

Muller gets around. His brand new house in suburban Long Island has wide corridors and a special bathroom like Cleland's. Muller is having a lift installed to give him access to the upstairs. There are no steps to block his way to the garage, and every day he wheels himself out there to his specially equipped car and drives through traffic to work in New York City. Since leaving Kingsbridge he has graduated from Hofstra Law School and has been the legislative director of the eastern region for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, an old, congressionally chartered lobby. He is a member of Governor Carey's Advisory Council on the disabled and was once a familiar figure at antiwar rallies. He has also been, as he puts it, a sort of drill instructor for the civilian handicapped, leading wheelchair brigades to places such as Times Square to demonstrate for the civil rights of the disabled. Today he is attempting to start up a Vietnam veterans' "advocacy center."

I waited for Muller at his home one afternoon last fall. His black haired wife, Virginia, was at the stove working on dinner. Muller entered like the typical commuter, kissed Virginia at the door, and rolled his chair toward his office wearily, complaining of the traffic. In a moment, however, he was laughing. About what I don't recall. I was absorbed by his laugh. I had never heard one like it. He threw his head back and opened his mouth and the laughter came up in hoarse, loud hoots.

A little later on he explained, "Gotta tell ya. I can't feel that bad about being a paraplegic."

About four times in the past nine years, Bobby Muller has awakened and found this dream still around him, like something interfering with his breathing.

He can walk! He looks down at himself; he is tall and lean. He fingers his uniform. "Hey, what happened?" he says to himself. "Am I in a time warp?"

He is standing on a hill. Around him he sees the ten big crablike tanks and the ARVN troops who were always so adept at running away. He catches a young Marine by the arm and demands the date. The young soldier seems to think the request peculiar. "Just gimme the date!"

The soldier tells him it is April 29, 1969, which is what Muller had suspected. He runs across the camp and gathers the American troops. "We gotta stop," he tells them. To the major he says, "We can't go any further. The war's wrong." The major places him under a hard, military stare. Muller tries to explain "There's these things called the Pentagon Papers. We're being used." He tries to warn them about the coming fire fight, attempting to frighten the ones who he knows are going to die that afternoon. He shouts at them that this battle will leave him, their lieutenant, three quarters paralyzed. The major tells the troops that Muller has lost his courage and is feigning madness in order to get out of the field. Muller pleads with them, "But I know the future. I'm a flashback." The men know that their lieutenant would never talk that way. They are saddling up, shrugging into knapsacks, picking up their weapons. He has to follow them. He is weeping, because he knows that it is going to happen all over again.

Presented by

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Join the Discussion

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

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In