"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 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.
Gradually, the conversation drifted back to the war. Tyson said, "I still am patriotic. I think as far as the war is concerned, I want my family protected."
"They're not too protected," said Willie Davis.
"I would rather fight communism there than here," retorted Tyson.
"Oh, man, what you talking about?" said Davis. He proceeded to describe a recent shoot-out in a local Baptist church, which all of them had heard about.
Williams said, "You not safe at home, now."
"That war," said Davis. "All those people died for nothing."
"For nothing," Tyson agreed, shaking his head.
"We could have won it," said Davis.
Tyson nodded emphatically. "We could have won it! Easy!"
"But we weren't fighting for anything," said Davis. "The war was only a way of making money for the civilians."
"And to decrease the population of the United States," said Tyson, thoughtfully. Then he smiled. "But we had a cause. Yeah, stay alive."
"I don't know," said Davis. "It's just all fucked, up. To go over and risk your life and return to what you left. Unemployment. No money."
"No money," Tyson said.
"Not too much security," offered David Williams.
Tyson turned to me. "I think they owe me for the time that I gave my country, you know. Maybe it's a thing where they spent so much money training us in 'pecific fields, they should keep us well and healthy so we be ready to go the next time."
Willie Davis's most important problem was clear-cut: he had been badly wounded. But it was harder for Tyson and Williams to identify the time when things had started to go wrong. They had been led to believe that military service, especially duty in Vietnam, would carry them into the good life. They must have believed this passionately, because they still hadn't completely abandoned the dream
Looking toward the future, David Williams wondered if the skills he had learned in dismounted drill might not be of some use after all. He had been asked to march some high school ROTC cadets in Birmingham's last Veterans Day parade. "I really liked that," he said. "I would like to be an ROTC instructor in a high school, teach 'em how to march. I would be really good at that."
Marion Tyson, the former mortarman, clasped his hands and gazed across the room. "Yeah, you know," he said, "if I could be at the high school and teach 'em how to use that mortar, I could do that."
The GI Bill
The World War II GI Bill has been described as the most significant, salutary piece of American legislation since the Homestead Act. A gigantic federal scholarship program, it sent some 8 million World War II veterans to school. It cost $14.5 billion and is generally considered to have long since paid for itself. The Vietnam-era GI Bill has also been huge; it has already cost about $22 billion. And there is no question that it has been a boon for millions of "era" veterans and for many of the men who actually went to the war. Take the case of Louis Jones, from Hawaii. A burly forty-two-year-old former sergeant first class, Jones spent 18 years, 9 months, and one day in the Army, including five years as a medic in Vietnam. By the time the war was over, he had become an alcoholic and was unable to adjust to the peacetime, volunteer Army-he felt he was being forced to harass his troops unduly, and after seeing so many young men die in Vietnam he did not have the heart for that work anymore. Less than a year before he would have been eligible for his Army pension, he had to quit. His life was all ruins, until he realized that he qualified for the GI Bill. When I met him, he was working on his bachelor's degree at City College of San Francisco and was pulling down A's and B's. He was a happy man. "The more I'm in school the better my brain becomes," he told me. "I'm finding education really stimulating. I know it will help me realize my potential, however humble that may be."
But Jones's experience is by no means universal. The World War II GI Bill paid a veteran's tuition, whatever it was, and on top of that it gave him a monthly subsistence allowance. The Vietnam-era Bill provides just one flat monthly sum. This has effectively prevented all but the wealthy Vietnam veterans from attending expensive private institutions. Lump-sum payments favor veterans who come from states such as California where tuition rates at public institutions tend to be low. Veterans from the South and the West have used almost 50 percent more GI Bill money than their counterparts from the "high-tuition" states of the Midwest and the Northeast. Timing has also made a difference. The assistance Jones received in 1977 is at least vaguely in line with the benefits provided a World War II veteran. But in 1966, when President Johnson grudgingly signed the Vietnam-era GI Bill into law, benefits were pegged at a lower level in absolute dollars than they had been after the Korean War. From 1966 to 1974, in the years when the men who served in Vietnam needed education assistance most, the new GI Bill was clearly inadequate compared to the World War II one. Moreover, it was incompetently administered. Throughout the sixties and early seventies the VA grew famous for misplacing GI Bill checks. Some veterans had to drop out of school for lack of cash because their checks did not arrive in time. Just how many quit school for this or other reasons isn't known. The VA's PR men like to point out that 64 percent of all Vietnam-era veterans have used some part of forty-two months of GI Bill benefits, about 10 percent more than the World War II Bill attracted, but this seems a hollow boast, because the VA has no idea how many veterans have actually completed their courses study.
Most important, the GI Bill seems to have been little use to the men in greatest need of education and training. One can use the Bill to go to virtually any sort of school, including a large number with questionable credentials, but the schedule and level of payments favor the veteran who wants to go to college for four years and a great many of the men who fought in Vietnam don't fall into that category. As everyone knows, blacks and other minorities did a disproportionate share of the fighting in Vietnam. Throughout the war black enlisted men made up about 8 percent of the armed forces, yet they accounted for about 15 percent of American casualties. But it was both white and black men from low-income families who mainly carried the burden. Once in the service, men from this economic class were twice as likely to see combat as youths from middle and high-income families. Many of these youths believed as Tyson did, that service would be a ticket to sucsess. That is what Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said he had in mind when he lowered the intelligence standards for admission into the Army. The announced intention of this program was to give underprivileged, undereducated buys a chance to learn marketable skills. After all, said McNamara, the military was "the largest single educational complex that the world has ever possessed." But the program's actual effect was to keep the draft from touching college students, and a study conducted by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs shows that "marginally qualified" Vietnam-era soldiers were most likely to be trained not for truck-driving or electronics but for combat.
VA statistics suggest that more than 20 percent of Vietnam veterans went to war without a high school education, and it seems a good bet that most of them have not found a use for the GI Bill: by 1977, only 30 percent of the Vietnam-era veterans without a high school education had used any part of their GI Bill benefits. And, of course, there is no way of telling how many Vietnam veterans have been using the Bill, not primarily to go to school and learn a trade, but to get cash and keep themselves and their families in food.
How many of the high school dropouts who fought in Vietnam have found jobs? Again, the dearth of statistics makes it impossible to know for sure. The Department of Labor does keep statistics on unemployment among Vietnam-era veterans, and overall, those figures do not look bad. But they are based on the people who come to state employment offices looking for help, and many actual Vietnam veterans are unlikely to go near those places even if they need work. It is easy to understand why: in the third quarter of 1977 only 18.5 percent of the 1.8 million Vietnam-era veterans who went to state employment offices were placed in jobs. In general, emergency employment schemes have also failed. President Carter's well-publicized HIRE program has been only a little less successful than most. The program was supposed to place 100,000 veterans in private industry, but it seems almost designed for failure. Attempting to minimize paperwork and expenses, the program's architects limited the project not only to a tiny segment of private industry but also to those companies least likely to be interested in participating. The Department of Labor says HIRE is improving. It ought to. Congress appropriated $140 million, and after eight months the Department of Labor had found a use for only about $14 million; they had rounded up no more than 8500 job possibilities; and they were sure of having actually placed 136 veterans.
99 1/2 percent pure
Throughout South Vietnam, marijuana came pre-rolled and packaged in cellophane. In the grid square where I spent my year these fat joints were known as "Nuc Mao 100's" in honor of their length and of the nearby village where they were sold. Amphetamines were also plentiful. One infantryman remembers his platoon medic standing by the side of a trail at the bottom of a long steep hill handing out tablets of speed to each passing soldier. There was always morphine, of course: death-weary medics in particular seem to have found it beguiling. There was plain opium, too. But the heroin was remarkable. Remembering it in prison, a former Marine shook his head in awe. "Hell, man, when I came back to the world, I had a $250-a-day habit. This stuff was 99 1/2 percent pure, you understand. In Nam, man, all we had to do was put it in a spoon, put some water in, and banged it. I had to consume five times as much back here to even coast."
No one knows how many men adopted hard drugs during the war in Vietnam. I have met men who used opium and morphine and heroin there in the years before the 1968 Tet offensive, but the great rise in wartime addiction appears to have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. There is no telling how many of the soldiers who came back addicted would have benefited from professional help. The Vietnam vets whom I visited in jail wanted to think that it was the war that had made them heroin users. They said they had not been destined to be junkies. It is hard to judge such statements, but there was no doubting their remorse. The fact is that until about 1971, a returning soldier received little or no immediate assistance or guidance from the military or the VA, and that is a shame because the best time to try weaning a soldier from his drugs was immediately upon his return, before he found his way to the addict's lairs back home.
But, to the surprise of many, a heroin epidemic did not follow Vietnam. In 1971 the government instituted a program to detoxify addicted returning soldiers. This was an excellent occasion to study the nature of narcotic addiction, and Dr. Lee Robins of Washington University in St. Louis seized it. Among her most significant findings was the fact that while many soldiers (about one in five in her sample) had become addicted to narcotics there, the vast majority of them (some 88 percent) had chucked their habits and had not become readdicted three years later. These findings speak clearly of the rigors of the war and of the nature of the men who fought it. In the main, soldiers who used narcotics in Vietnam were not reprobates but, as a government study reports, "ordinary young men without any special readiness to adopt dangerous and illegal behavior."
A former Marine corpsman named Jack McCloskey, who lives in San Francisco, told me he remembered crying a great deal over comrades he was unable to save. Later, when he found he couldn't cry anymore, he took to morphine. He returned with fifty-six Syrettes of the stuff taped to his skin beneath his uniform, but he used up only half, then threw the rest into the waves off a San Francisco beach and flew back to his home in South Philadelphia, where friends got him a hotel room and ten days' supply of Robitussin AC cough syrup. Just like that, he got over it, he says, although he does remember morphine fondly sometimes. It is a common story from the war.
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."
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.