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Vietnam veterans find a new role

Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, many Vietnam War veterans are taking pride in a new role - making sure U.S. troops who serve in  Iraq and Afghanistan get the welcome home that they never got themselves.
Staging area in Laos or Cambodia, 1969. Kenneth Hoffman, now a communications professor at Seton Hall University, took this and the other photos used in this story while serving with the U.S. Signal Corps in 1969.
Staging area in Laos or Cambodia, 1969. Kenneth Hoffman, now a communications professor at Seton Hall University, took this and the other photos used in this story while serving with the U.S. Signal Corps in 1969.E. Kenneth Hoffman
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For Tim Beebe, the hard reality of what it meant to be a Vietnam veteran came a few months after he returned to the United States, when his riot control unit was sent to face off with protesters at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. “It became abundantly clear to me that there was something wrong with the fabric here,” Beebe remembers.

For Bob Peragallo, it came at the very moment he stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, when an anti-war protester spit in his face. “It just blew my mind,” said Peragallo, now an ordained minister in British Columbia. “We'd heard there was a lot of unrest but it was just a mess."

For Jim Garrett, returning home to South Carolina in 1969 after a year in Vietnam with the 3d Marine Division, it wasn’t the reaction that set his head spinning, but the lack of any reaction. “Nobody mentioned that I’d been gone anywhere,” he remembers. “There was an expectation I would pick up with my life where I left off and just get on with it.”

"I stayed angry all the time because people here were just walking around doing day-to-day things when my friends, my fellow Marines in Vietnam were getting killed," said Garrett. "Nobody here had any involvement in the war."

Little appreciation for service
What stung most for many veterans, was the almost complete lack of recognition of their service.

"We were all a bunch of losers," said Peragallo, who went to Vietnam with the 3d Marines in 1965. "It was a little humiliating."

Street child, Saigon, 1970
Street child, Saigon, 1970E. Kenneth Hoffman

“When I came back from Vietnam, one of the quickest ways to stop a conversation was to say you were a Vietnam vet — no one knew what to say,” said Garrett, now a senior Veteran’s Administration official in New England.

He remembers a large family Sunday dinner in South Carolina: “We were sitting around in a room watching TV when a jet flew over making a loud noise, and the next thing I knew I was on the floor looking up at everybody."

His relatives helped him to his feet, Garrett said, “But then everybody acted as though it didn’t happen. People were afraid to ask questions.”

Blaming the troops
As more and more Americans turned against the war, they also turned against the men and women who were serving there, blaming them for the failure to defeat the Viet Cong, tainting them all for the well-publicized actions of a few. “The veterans of the Vietnam War became a scapegoat for all of the political shenanigans that went on,” Peragallo said.

And the news media piled on. “There are always incidents that happen in wars, atrocities, that were often not reported, but that now were captured on TV,” said Garrett. “The American people had never seen American soldiers doing that.”

The United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973; two years later, 30 years ago this weekend, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. The United States tried to forget everything it had ever known about Vietnam, including its veterans. Even some traditional veterans groups turned their backs on Vietnam vets.

“There was this stigma because the Vietnam War was the only war the U.S. has ever lost,” Beebe said. “But we would argue it was the only war where our soldiers never lost a single battle. But some veterans associations didn’t welcome Vietnam vets.”

From those depths, the road back has been a slow one, but it was the Vietnam vets themselves who found the way. They started by learning to talk about the unspeakable. It wasn't easy.

A psychiatric ward
"I remember coming home thinking 'that was really surreal, that was horrendous, no way in my lifetime I'm ever going to make sense of that,'" said Beebe, who served in Vietnam in 1967 with the 1st Cavalry Division.

"On good days we were protecting a village from guerrilla attacks so the farmers could plant their rice, and then on bad days we were getting shot at from that same village," Beebe remembers. "There were no words to explain that, even if someone had asked, and secondly, no one was interested."

Garrett found his voice through a psychiatric ward. Although he had flunked out of college before the war, he had returned to school and earned a degree in clinical psychology. He was working with the V.A. in Augusta, Ga., in 1980, when he was assigned to talk to other Vietnam veterans who were experiencing mental problems.

“It was the first time I had talked to another vet about Vietnam since 1970,” Garrett remembers. “And then I started to talk with the veterans on the psych ward and identify with them, with their anger at the government, their anger at the way they had been treated.I would walk out of the hospital every day furious, not understanding what was going on.”

Beebe's experience was similar: "I wanted to know, Why can’t I sleep at night? Why, before my feet hit the ground in the morning getting out of bed, I’m furious? Why can't I stand being in a crowd. Why can't I hold a conversation with anyone? Why are all of these things going on?"

Learning about post-traumatic stress
The answer was a concept that was new to psychologists at the time: post-traumatic stress disorder. Although it had been noticed before, it wasn't until the Vietnam War that it was studied extensively by psychologists. "Suddenly there was an acceptance of the fact that emotional distress is a response to the trauma of war," said Beebe, who now manages veterans center programs for the V.A. in the Northeast.

Protest march in Washington, DC, early 1970's
Protest march in Washington, DC, early 1970'sE. Kenneth Hoffman

And many Vietnam vets found they had something to talk about with the veterans of earlier wars. "Lo and behold, Korean War and World War II vets said, 'Gee, I’ve been suffering from this too,'" said Beebe.

With time, talk and counseling, the wounds began to heal.

For Beebe, the turning point came with the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. "That was enormously validating for Vietnam veterans," he said.

For Peragallo, coming to terms with Vietnam changed his life. In 1988, he wrote about his experiences for a book a friend was writing. That lead to a trip back to Vietnam, and a group, Vets with a Mission, which builds medical facilities in rural Vietnam. He's made 32 trips back and now has friends who are former foes.

"We had a reconciliation dinner and we talked soldier to soldier," he said, "They bawled their eyes out, and we bawled our eyes out."

For many Vietnam veterans, the final turnaround came with the first Gulf War, so totally different from Vietnam. This time the enemy was easy to find, and the battle lines clearly drawn. Unlike in Vietnam, U.S. generals were happy to face the news media, showing off gun-camera images of bombs striking their targets, rolling out the maps which showed hourly how the United States and its allies were slicing through Kuwait and into Iraq itself. In five days, the ground war was over, with only 148 U.S. troops killed in action. Gulf war veterans came home victorious, to welcoming parades.

And now, after Afghanistan and Iraq, the image of Vietnam veterans as pot-smoking, baby-burning losers who would turn violent at the drop of a beer bottle, seems finally put to rest. When U.S. troops return from Iraq they are welcomed with banners, bands and open arms, and those at the head of the welcome line are often Vietnam vets.

"With this war, we are out there now to do outreach to the returning Iraq and Afghan veterans," Beebe said. "One of the things many Vietnam vets said was, 'Never again — never again wouldn’t we recognize the sacrifices people make when they go to war."