"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What's a Vietnam Vet?

Just before Veterans' Day, a college student named Adam was working on a school assignment in which he was supposed to obtain original narratives from "people old enough to have actually been in Vietnam."

 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 are crazies dressed in cammo, wide-eyed, wary, homeless, and drunk. We wear Brooks Brothers suits doing deals downtown; we are housewives, grandmothers, and church deacons; we are college professors engaged in rational pursuit of the truth about the history, politics or culture of the Vietnam experience; and we are sleepless. We are often sleepless.

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.

And life went on. It had already been going on, as if we hadn't been there, as if Vietnam was a topic of political conversation, a college protest, or just news copy, and not a matter of life and death for tens of thousands.

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.)

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale


  1. This is exactly who we are & all that we have lived with, dealt with, endured. Just kids from little towns no one ever heard of. Ironic we came from no name places to fight in an unknown name place, unheard of except what little we saw on the news. Very well said about what a Viet Nam Veteran truly is. There is so much more to us than even we could begin to explain. There is no one true answer to us & our legacy. Thanks L. Daniel Mouer,. I salute you & welcome home, my friend & comrade. Michael "Surfer" Lansford, 101st Airborne Viet Nam 68-69.

  2. These facts evoke more love for my Vietnam brothers and sisters as we grow older.

    Bryan Bell
    210th Combat, 1st Aviation


Feel free to comment.