Sunday, May 28, 2000

Citizen Soldiers

Contrary to reputation, Vietnam vets are doing well

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ronald Thompson spent one year in Vietnam and made a career of the Army.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        The most familiar image of the Vietnam veteran is the dysfunctional one — violent, addicted, homeless, chronic divorce.

        He is Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.

        He is the out-of-work drifter in Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.”

        He is the sometimes-bogus Vietnam veteran who stands at the end of freeway exit ramps holding cardboard signs that ask for money.

        But the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans hardly fit that image — they are simply productive members of society.

George Schaefer, CEO, Fifth Third Bank
Richard Spoor, city attorney, Park Hills, Ky.
Howard Ferdon, tow truck driver
John Agenbroad, mayor of Springboro
Ronald Thompson, U.S. Army, retired
Barbara Rounds-Kugler, nurse
        Yes, there are Vietnam veterans who are mentally ill, homeless and chemically addicted. But most of the 2.7 million men and women who served in Vietnam are akin to the World War II generation immortalized in Tom Brokaw's best-seller The Greatest Generation and Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers.

        They came home, started families, built communities and established careers. Some stayed in the military or rode the GI Bill through college. Some climbed the corporate ladder. Some found work — and happiness — in factories.

        Almost three decades have passed since they returned from Southeast Asia. April 30 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. This Memorial Day finds some Vietnam veterans, now in their 50s and 60s, still battling to right their reputation.

        “What happened is the war went on for too long, it ended badly, and the country demonized the warrior to demonize the war,” said B.G. Burkett, an Army lieutenant in Vietnam who today is a stockbroker in Dallas and co-author of Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History (Verity Press, 1998).

        From 1986 through 1997, Mr. Burkett filed thousands of public information requests with the federal government. The portrait of the Vietnam veteran that emerges in Stolen Valor is different than the one painted by popular culture.

        • Men who served in Vietnam were no more likely to be unemployed than men who did not serve in Vietnam, according to a 1994 study by economist Sharon Cohany with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Men who served in Vietnam had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent — not including men who remained in the military and are fully employed — compared to a 5 percent unemployment rate for Vietnam-era veterans who did not go to Southeast Asia.

        • Nine percent of Vietnam veterans did not graduate from high school, compared to about 23 percent of their peers, and a Vietnam veteran was more likely to have gone to college than a man his age who had not been in the military, according to a 1985 Washington Post-ABC poll. There are few legitimate studies that compare Vietnam veterans to their contemporaries.

        • Almost 80 percent of Vietnam veterans own a home, a rate higher than their peers who did not go to Vietnam, the same poll showed.

        • Veterans who served in Vietnam graded essentially the same as military veterans of the same era who did not go to Southeast Asia, according to a 1988 study of 15,000 troops by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. More than 90 percent of men in both groups were employed, and 60 percent of married men in both groups were still married to their first wives.

        “We are massively successful and the leaders of our generation,” said Mr. Burkett, who also lists dozens of well-known Vietnam veterans in his book, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and retired Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), Federal Express founder Frederick W. Smith, Veterans Affairs deputy administrator Everett Alvarez Jr., Washington Post publisher Donald Graham, actor Dennis Franz, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft and former Dallas Cowboys star Roger Staubach, a Purcell High School graduate.

        Then there are the tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans, while not famous, who are solid citizens.

        “I'm proud that I served my country the best that I could,” said Howard Ferdon, of Colerain Township, who completed two combat tours in Vietnam after volunteering. Far fewer Vietnam veterans were drafted, 25 percent, than World War II veterans, 66 percent.

        “My commander in chief sent me, so I went,” said Mr. Ferdon, now 53 and a grandfather who makes his living driving a tow truck.

        But upon their return, many Vietnam veterans were greeted as baby killers.

        Barbara Rounds-Kugler, 60, of Harrison, a nursing supervisor at a mobile Army hospital in Vietnam, flew back to Seattle in 1969 with 400 other U.S. troops.

        “The reception was not what I would have liked,” said Mrs. Rounds-Kugler, who works at the VA Medical Center in Corryville, where she manages a study on post-traumatic stress disorder.

        “We got down and kissed the ground, but we got up and were spit on and had rotten vegetables thrown at us.

        “It was a surprise. In my mind, I said, "What the hell is this?' We just got back from risking our lives so those people could have the freedom to do this, and this was the thanks we got.”

        The war in Vietnam, which cost 58,000 American and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese lives, still incites controversy, heated debate and passion.

        Herbert Shapiro, 70, who will retire this year as a University of Cincinnati history professor, protested U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and '70s.

        “The question is not so much the honor of the individual who fought in Vietnam — the majority made lives when they came back,” said Mr. Shapiro, a Vietnam-era specialist.

        “The questions are why were they sent to Vietnam, what were they sent to do, who was the enemy. What was the rationale of policy?”

        Many Americans today, though, appear to have learned to differentiate between warriors and politicians.

        Desert Storm, the U.S.-led defeat of Iraq in 1991 in a decisive 100-hour ground war, was the turning point. Yellow ribbons honoring service men and women were everywhere. A popular bumper sticker read, “We support our troops.” Religious services often became patriotic rallies.

        Desert Storm veterans came home to parades and the heroes' welcome denied Vietnam veterans. Many Vietnam veterans felt vindicated by that reception. They say the Desert Storm welcome was part apology for the bitter reception they received a generation before.

        The military victory, designed by Vietnam veterans — including now-retired generals H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell and Barry McCaffrey — showed what the Vietnam generation could have done if given a clear objective.

        “If the generals had been allowed to run the war, it would have over in '65,” said Mrs. Rounds-Kugler, the Army nurse. “It was greed and power and politics that dragged it out.”

        George Schaefer, 55, president and CEO of Fifth Third Bank and a Vietnam veteran who served overseas, thinks Vietnam veterans are underappreciated and wrongly portrayed.

        But, Mr. Schaefer said, contributions of all veterans — past and present — are underappreciated.

        “People assume this life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is just there,” Mr. Schaefer said. “They assume freedom exists without cost.”

        Americans could show their appreciation for Vietnam veterans — specifically — in a simple way, Mr. Burkett said.

        “It's almost irreversible,” he said, “but people could stop jumping to the negative stereotype. The Vietnam veteran is the most successful warrior this nation has produced — bar none.”

Veterans: We must remember them - and embrace them

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