Having been there, L. Daniel Mouer asked how he could help. Adam asked him to respond to the question "What is a Vietnam Veteran?" This is what Mr. Mouer wrote:
"Vietnam veterans are men and women, dead or alive, whole or maimed, sane or haunted. We grew from our experiences, or were destroyed by them, or we struggle to find some place in between. We lived through hell or we had a pleasant, if scary, adventure. We were Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Red Cross, and civilians of all sorts. Some of us enlisted to fight for God and Country, and some were drafted. Some were gung-ho, and some went kicking and screaming.
Like veterans of all wars, we lived a tad bit--or a great bit--closer to death than most people like to think about. If Vietnam vets differ from other vets, it is primarily because many of us never saw the enemy or recognized him or her. We heard gunfire and mortar fire but rarely looked into enemy eyes. Those who did, are often haunted for life by those eyes, those sounds, those electric fears that ran between ourselves and our enemies, and the likelihood of death for one of us. Or we get hard, calloused, tough. All in a day's work. Life's a bitch then you die. But most of us remember and get twitchy, worried, sad.
We pushed paper, pushed shovels. We drove jeeps, operated bulldozers, built bridges; we toted machine guns through dense brush, deep paddy, and thorn scrub. We lived on buffalo milk, fish heads and rice. Or C-rations. Or steaks and Budweiser. We did our time in high mountains drenched by endless monsoon rains or on the dry plains or on muddy rivers or at the most beautiful beaches in the world.
We wore berets, bandanas, flop hats, and steel pots. Flak jackets, canvas, rash and rot. We ate cloroquine and got malaria anyway. We got shots constantly but have diseases nobody can diagnose.
We spent our nights on cots or shivering in foxholes filled with waist-high water or lying still on cold wet ground, our eyes imagining Charlie behind every bamboo blade. Or we slept in hotel beds in Saigon or barracks in Thailand or in cramped ship berths at sea.
We feared we would die or we feared we would kill. We simply feared, and often we still do. We hate the war or believe it was the best thing that ever happened to us. We blame Uncle Sam or Uncle Ho and their minions and secretaries and apologists for every wart or cough or tic of an eye. We wonder if Agent Orange got us.
Mostly, we wish we had not been so alone. Some of us went with units, but many, probably most of us, were civilians one day, jerked up out of "the world," shaved, barked at, insulted, humiliated, de-egoized and taught to kill, fix radios, and drive trucks. We went, we put in our time, and then were equally, ungraciously plucked out of the morass and placed back into the real world. But now we smoked dope or drank heavily. Our wives or husbands seemed distant and strange. Our friends wanted to know if we shot anybody.
Vietnam vets are people just like you. We served our country proudly, reluctantly, or ambivalently. What makes us different -- what makes us Vietnam vets -- is something we understand, but we are afraid nobody else will understand. But we do appreciate your asking.
Vietnam veterans are white, black, beige and shades of gray. Our ancestors came from Africa, Europe, Asia, or crossed the Bering Sea land bridge in the last Ice Age and formed the nations of American Indians, built pyramids in Mexico, or farmed acres of corn on the banks of Chesapeake Bay. We had names like Rodriguez, Stein, Smith and Kowalski. We were Americans, Australians, Canadians, and Koreans ... but most Vietnam veterans are Vietnamese.
We were farmers, students, mechanics, steelworkers, nurses, and priests when the call came that changed us all forever. We had dreams and plans, and they all had to change...or wait. We were daughters and sons, lovers and poets, beatniks and philosophers, convicts and lawyers. We were rich and poor -- mostly poor. We were educated or not -- mostly not. We grew up in slums, in shacks, in duplexes, in bungalows and houseboats, hooches and ranches. We were cowards and heroes -- sometimes we were even cowards one moment and heroes the next.
Many of us have never seen Vietnam. We waited at home for those we loved. For some of us, our worst fears were realized. For others, our loved ones came back but never would they be the same.
We came home, marched in protest marches, sucked in tear gas, and shrieked our anger and horror for all to hear. Or we sat alone in small rooms, in VA hospital wards, in places where only the crazy ever go. We are Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Confucians, Buddhists and Atheists -- though as usually is the case, even the atheists among us sometimes prayed to get out of there alive.
We are hungry, or sated, full of life or clinging to death. We are the injured, or we are healers, despairing or hopeful, loved or lost. We got too old too quickly, but some of us have never grown up. We want desperately to go back to heal wounds and revisit the sites of our horror. Or we want never to see that place again, to bury it, its memories, its meaning. We want to forget, and we wish we could remember.
Despite our differences, we have so much in common. There are few of us who don't know how to cry, though we often do it alone when nobody will ask "what's wrong?" See, we're afraid we might have to answer.
Adam, if you want to know what a Vietnam veteran is, get in your car or cage a friend with a car to drive you. Go to Washington. Go to the Wall on Veterans Day weekend. There will be hundreds there ... no, thousands. Watch them. Listen to them. I'll be there. Come touch the Wall with us. Rejoice a bit. Cry a bit. No, cry a lot. I will. I'm a Vietnam Veteran and, after all these years, I think I am just beginning to understand what that means ..."
Copyright 1996 L. Daniel Mouer, all rights reserved. (Soon to be published as a chapter in Dan's forthcoming book Warbaby: Surviving the Sixties and Beyond.)