Believe it or not, I thought that a veteran was someone who’d served in a war with the American military. With that in mind while I was still on active duty, I went to the V.A. with some questions. I’d served a tour or two in Vietnam by then so I thought I was more than qualified to enter the V.A. with my concerns and, of course, I was turned away. It was explained to me that since I was still on active duty all of my concerns should be addressed to my chain of command. Once I was honorably discharged and a civilian, I would be more than welcome to come into the V.A. Okay, lesson learned. I was a war veteran but not a veteran veteran. What did I know, I was just a 20 year old kid.
Upon my discharge, I learned that I was something else: A Vietnam veteran. All of us in the military those days knew or felt that there was a deep divide in the United States between hawks and doves. We saw the newsreels of mass demonstrations in all of the major cities and on seemingly every American campus. Almost all of us felt their wrath as epitaphs and bricks were thrown at us while we were in uniform. We all knew about Kent State and the riots that went on at our colleges and universities and we were seen as instigators to these incidents. We as Vietnam veterans were seen as the reason four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard. It was not a good time for veterans. Perhaps in a few small towns in the South and Midwest there were welcoming crowds for Vietnam veterans but the national mood and narrative was that we were drug-addled, baby killers who needed to be shunned and avoided. So be it. What I saw as important was that I get a college education. I wanted to put my military service behind me as quickly as possible and start buying textbooks and taking classes. Time was of the essence I felt because I was old. I was applying to be a freshman in colleges as a 22 year old man, not an 18 year old kid. I went to a junior college in Massachusetts to see if I was really geared towards college. I was. I was so thirsty for knowledge, so desirous to learn that I studied like crazy, took copious notes and was constantly raising my hand to ask questions of my professors. It was a small college so there were only a few veterans in the student body but the faculty soon realized that we were the go-to students that we were eager to learn and not just interested in smoking dope and partying. I pulled straight A’s and graduated at the top of my class. I transferred to the University of Colorado where I found a lot of Vietnam veterans and we would meet as often as we could at the Colorado University Veterans Association (CUVA). We didn’t tell war stories or try and impress each other with which units we’d served with. We were only interested in the camaraderie we shared and we knew that no one in our organization would berate us for our service.
I remember reading an article in Psychology Today back in the 80’s about how men who didn’t serve in Vietnam for whatever reason were feeling despondent that they’d never tested their mettle by serving in Vietnam and were seeking therapy. I read the article with more than a little interest as I thought these were the SOB’s who were calling me a baby killer and are now sorry they can’t tell war stories. I made a note to plan a pity party sometime soon.
I and my brethren learned to live as vilified. More hated than Confederate soldiers in the North and Union soldiers in the South, in fact the most hated returning soldiers in American history. So be it. Slowly over the years we learned to regain our pride. Our unit patches were sewn on our VFW jackets and we began marching in Memorial Day parades. We began to show up at Veterans Day ceremonies and to speak at schools about our experiences and a semblance of normalcy started to return in our lives as America began to accept us back into the fold thirty years after our return home.
This morning I was standing in line at Whole Foods with two items. Now in retirement I wear jeans every day and the sweatshirt du jour read “ARMY VIETNAM VETERAN”. The woman ahead of me had a ton of items placed on the belt and she looked at my two items and invited me to go ahead of her. I thanked her and did and I heard the man ahead of her with one item say “I wish someone had done that for me but with your shirt I’m glad she did”. He was about my age but not a Vietnam veteran. If he had been he would have said so. I thanked him for his comment and wondered if had sought therapy because he hadn’t served in Vietnam.
Mr. Kim Rasemen, USA ‘67-‘71