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By Bill Shunas
In today's USA, what does it mean to be a veteran, and what role do veterans play? Being a veteran of a recent war is in many ways a lot different than back in the Vietnam days. Of course there are similarities with all wars. There are after effects such as limitations on care for vets, limited jobs for vets, and PTSD. However today everyone in the whole US of A knows when it comes to veterans that something special is happening here, and they usually show respect and give a vet some space if not the opportunity needed.
This reception is similar to World War II and before when veterans were shown respect and treated as heroes. However there are some differences between present day vets and World War II. For one, nowadays the GI Bill is much weaker. It is also different in a good way in that recognition of PTSD and traumatic brain injury is common among vets, is a problem and can be helped. WWII vets had to deal with any of these problems by themselves.
Unlike now or WWII, Vietnam vets didn't return to a welcome. The best we could hope for was to be ignored. Maybe this was because we were fighting against a concept (anti-communism) rather than against an enemy which was taking territory from other countries and sending civilians to death camps. Maybe it was because we lost our war. Or grew our hair long. Or dissed the establishment. Or smoked dope. Or disobeyed.
When I returned from Vietnam, I soon headed for my favorite bar. There I was greeted by old friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen for about a year. Some said they were glad to see me back. Some said they were glad that I served unlike those who went to Canada or pulled strings to get a draft deferment. After about 20 or 30 minutes the talk returned to the NBA playoffs and the beginning of the baseball season. I no longer felt like a returning veteran, nor did I want or expect to feel so. I only wanted to slip back into my life.
Many had different, less welcome experiences. Due to what was experienced in Vietnam many needed emotional as well as material support and didn't get it. Then again, many of you had similar experiences as I. Maybe you started school on the GI Bill and never told anyone you were a vet. Many at school heard other students disparaging vets. You stayed quiet and wondered. Did we have any say in that debacle? (VVAW members on campus and other vets in the peace movement helped change some of the backward sentiment about soldiers/veterans.)
Much has been said about Vietnam vets not being welcomed home. Back in about 1975 the Chicago Chapter of VVAW had a rally to honor Vietnam vets. There wasn't much of a turnout. Vietnam vets just didn't connect to being a veteran in the way that Iraq and Afghanistan vets do today. A few years later Vietnam vets were discovered. Cities started to have welcome home parades, and maybe this kicked off the period of changing attitudes toward vets leading up to the situation today.
Today veterans are chic. Rick Morrissey, sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times began his last year's Veterans Day article by writing, "I can't recall the last time I attended a sporting event without seeing some sort of tribute to military members." Everybody supports us now. Or exploits us.
There used to often be movies or TV programs about a Vietnam vet doing drugs or going off and having a shoot-em-up. More accurate movies like Coming Home or Born on the Fourth of July were less common. Now on the TV series or in the movies the vet is outstanding. The only exception is when he works as a military contractor for Blackwater or some other mercenary outfit. If PTSD causes the hero to do something stupid or tragic — well — that is to be understood, and he'll (most often he) receive TLC from the leading lady.
Vets obviously play political roles. In the collective mind of the civilian population before Vietnam there used to be assumptions that equated being a veteran with being a patriot. This transferred into being a supporter of the military and a supporter of any war started by our government. In the aftermath of Vietnam that had changed or was not talked about as much. That was because half the Vietnam vets (or maybe the more visible) had long hair and questioned war.
When Vietnam vets started getting thanks for our service there was another change. We now fit into the old formula. Vietnam vet equals good. All vets are good. Good vet equals patriot. Patriots support the military. Supporting the military means supporting the current (and next) war. Vets are thanked as having defended our freedom and risking the ultimate sacrifice in order that we civilians may enjoy our way of life because of the wars fought. Unstated is any doubt that the sacrifices have anything to do with the freedoms enjoyed in the homeland.
A large portion of civilians buy into the vet equals patriot idea to the point where speaking out against a war such as the Gulf War in the early nineties meant that you were denigrating heroes. I remember an anti-war demonstration back then. Off to the side were a handful of people waving flags and shouting support for our soldiers. This was apples versus oranges, but the perception was that not supporting the war meant you were somehow against the soldier.
Over time things got better and you could say what you wanted as long as you saluted our soldiers. But it still needs work. Sometimes people who consider themselves to be patriots oppose (a) war but stay quiet because they are afraid that speaking out is unpatriotic. It is sometimes hard to speak out against the loud voices of the self-righteous.
So we have reached the glorious situation where the nation wants to do all it can to support and help recently returned vets. PTSD and TBI are considered to be things that need to be dealt with. Everyone knows that these folks made great sacrifices and are deserving. One problem. We are in a prolonged economic slump. There is less money to do the things that veterans need to be done. So, yes, the nation feels for vets, but the budget doesn't include what's needed. And if things don't get cut, neither do they expand to the extent needed.
One thing that can be done for the future veterans of war is to create fewer of us. The way that's done is to have fewer and shorter wars. In the meantime we are here as a social and political force with social needs. We are not always understood, but we are usually honored. We need to make as the accepted wisdom the slogan "Honor the Warrior, Not the War."
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.