Am I a real Vietnam Veteran?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? I have, and I’ve struggled with the answer since the day I returned home from Vietnam in January 1972. That in itself seems to be an odd statement. Of course, I am a Vietnam Veteran if I did a tour in Vietnam. Right? Well yeah, I was there but the question is: “Am I a ‘REAL’ Vietnam Veteran?”

When I think about all of the stories I have read, and the movies I have seen, “real” Vets had a much different experience than I had. I didn’t get shot; I didn’t even get wounded. Other than a battle with the delirious fevers of malaria, I came home unscathed… physically. So why wasn’t I a happy camper? What more could I have asked for? And why did I feel so guilty about that? And why did I have nightmares? And why do I even question whether I am a real Vet or not? None of it makes sense to me.

For many years after I came home, “back to the world”, I never talked to anyone about my Army service and I chose not to seek out other veterans. I kept to myself for the most part. But then on one unexpected occasion when I had an opportunity to speak with a fellow Vet who was a bit older than I was, he asked me what year I served in? When I replied “1971,” he laughed and said: “OHHH, that doesn’t really count, we had the war mostly all wrapped up by then!”  I’m sure his intent wasn’t malicious, but man those words stung! And that for sure strongly reinforced my doubt… coming from another Veteran… Nope, I’m not a “real” Vet!

The most devastating years of the war as far as the number of casualties was during the peak years of 1967-1968-1969. That is when 2/3 of all of the war’s 58,318 American deaths occurred. Those three years were the heaviest combat years from what was America’s longest war at the time. Those were the times during the war that most of the books and movies were about. The guys who fought in the actual “heavy combat” during those three years were real Vets for sure. They have absolutely and unequivocally earned and certainly deserve the highest respect and recognition from all of us.

But what about the earlier 60’s and then the 70’s years of the war? Do those years count? As the war was winding down when I was there in 1971, the casualties had dropped way down. There were “only” 2,357 men killed. Only!!? That counts, right? Of course it does, those 2,357 men and the men who fought in the battles with them, large or small, are for sure real Vets, but what about the rest of us in 1971 and the other years? Should being a “real” Vet be defined as ONLY those who have been in “heavy combat” that resulted in heavy casualties?

I don’t think there is any doubt that receiving military orders to report to Vietnam for a one-year tour of duty was traumatic for anyone, no matter what year it was. The big unknown is: Will it be bad? or really bad? Will I ever come home again? Will I live or die? There’s no way around those thoughts. Those psychological contemplations and fears were real, and in my mind, all of us who had to face that basic reality from day one and going forward, are “real vets” regardless of what years we served in and regardless of what our assignments were.

However, I am sure that some may disagree, so let’s delve into it deeper to try to determine if some of my following listed encounters and experiences count toward being a “real” Vet or not.

Does just being assigned to an infantry unit as a rifleman and sometimes a grenadier and at times a machine gunner count?

Does pulling guard duty on the perimeter of an LZ or a Firebase or an Airbase, for 30 consecutive nights or longer without a day off count? Even though the “only” casualties that my unit suffered there were few?

Does going outside the wire with just a small squad of 6-8 men on dozens and dozens of ambush patrols overnight into the rice paddies count? Even though the “only” casualties my unit suffered there were from friendly fire?

Does the fear and exhaustion of carrying a rifle and humping a heavy rucksack up and down the mountains and hacking through the jungles of the dangerous Central Highlands count?

Does the intense fear that results from being shot at and pinned down by snipers as bullets from automatic weapons whiz by you on a hot and humid afternoon in the jungle count? When you are so scared that you’re holding your steel pot tight against your head and lying flat on the ground, trying to hide under your heavy rucksack which is your only cover? Even though none of that resulted in any casualties at all?

Does hearing the terrifying loud explosions of artillery rounds that came in so dangerously close that you can hear the shrapnel cutting the tree branches above and around you count? Even though there again we somehow luckily avoided casualties?

Does being in a convoy roadside ambush count? Seeing trucks get blown up, seeing soldiers wounded and bloodied? Seeing helicopter “dust-offs” landing to pick up the wounded? Hearing the sounds of the gun-truck’s 50 caliber machine guns firing up the hillside where the rockets were fired from, so very close by. Even though my platoon was rushed out of the kill zone and unable to return direct fire after the initial terrifying explosions, does any of that still count?

Does the fear and adrenalin of flying around the country in helicopters and being dropped into remote areas to perform search and destroy missions count? Even though we rarely made enemy contact?

After all, the casualties in my 1/22 infantry battalion were comparatively minimal during 1971 as the war was winding down, and as I stated earlier, I didn’t even get shot, or see any of my buddies get killed. I know of some that were killed while I was there, but I didn’t see it happen. So maybe that doesn’t count.  None of what I saw or participated in would be called “heavy combat.” I have never been in a “real” combat battle. Real combat battles have names. Right?

The reality is: any battle that YOU are in is a big one, no matter how small it may be, because it doesn’t take a large enemy force or a big battle to kill you… it only takes one man, with one gun, to shoot you one time.

I don’t even want to get into how the majority US population felt about all of us Vets when we returned home, questioning why we as individual soldiers even chose to go over there in the first place! Chose!!? Everyone knows those regrettable stories about how disrespectful we Vietnam Veterans were treated. Not like “real” Veterans, that’s for sure!

And then there was the time that I was sitting around a campfire one night with 3 or 4 older Vets that were from the Korean War and WWII, drinking beer and listening quietly to their military service stories. Like many Viet Vets, I never talked much about Vietnam before. But I decided to join in and take a turn that night. I simply mentioned how hot and humid it was over there, and how much rain there was during the monsoon season, and how I hated sleeping on the wet ground. One of the old guys replied: “Well that’s your own fault because you didn’t do a good job trenching around your tent.” I cordially laughed and said “what tent? We didn’t have tents, we just draped ponchos over tree branches in the jungle!” The Old Vet then scolded me: “Why do you Vietnam guys always think you had it so bad and came back always whining and complaining about how bad your time over there was!?”  Ouch!

Well, maybe I shouldn’t have dropped it, but I bit my tongue, as I was raised not to talk back to my elders. I think you can see the point though, that negative attitude was prevalent, not only in American society as a whole but also in some of the older Vets from previous wars as well. And it had a devastating effect. Yep, it reinforced that I wasn’t a “real” vet.

Even some of older Veterans organizations such as the VFW that were predominantly run by the much older “real” Vets back then, shunned and rejected us Vietnam Veterans. We were thought of as rogue soldiers that were not even in a declared (real) war. To them, Vietnam was simply just an unpopular, poorly run, failed police action. And we were not “real” war vets that were worthy of membership, regardless of the level of our combat experience. That will never happen again! Please note, the point is not to denigrate the VFW (or any other Veterans service organizations), as they serve a great purpose and need for many Veterans and have long ago reversed that type of unfair prejudice. The point is, that was just one example of the reality that we faced in our society upon returning home from war!

At some point, many many years later, actually fairly recently, I became involved with the DAV as a volunteer driver. I transported Veterans to and from their medical appointments at the VA hospital.

That was really the first time I had any serious interaction with other Veterans. And I discovered something that I never really gave much thought to before: There are tons of Veterans who served in Vietnam without seeing any combat, let alone “heavy combat.”  The fact is, only a small percentage of those who served were in the infantry. The vast majority of the troops served in non-combat support roles while in Vietnam. However, the war engulfed the entire country of South Vietnam and there were no front lines or rear lines, so as a result, EVERYONE who served, lived with the reality that anyone could get hit at any time, no matter where they served in-country or what branch of the military they served in, or what year it was. The reality was that any base, large or small, could be subject to sapper attacks or incoming mortar rounds at any time.  Still, those who served on the bases all bravely reported for their duty regardless of whatever unknown dangers and fears lie ahead of them. Does that count? I think it does.

I had a lot of free time while waiting for the guys to finish up with their Dr. appointments. So, I sometimes wandered around the VA medical center to kill time. I often walked past a doorway that opened up into a large room. There was a sign over top of the door that said “Heroes Hall.” I was amazed and wondered what elite honor group was allowed to go in there! I thought that must be some kind of private club. I would just peek in sometimes to see what “real” heroes looked like. But I couldn’t really see them very well, and I certainly wouldn’t dare go in there! I wasn’t even sure if I was a “real” Vet, and I was positive that I was no hero!

Eventually, when some of the guys that I was transporting as a volunteer, found out that I was also a Veteran, they invited me into Hero’s Hall to have a cup of coffee with them. Well, I could tell from talking with those guys that they were no different than me and certainly didn’t seem to be heroes either. It was interesting but surprising to discover that the men and women in Heroes Hall seemed to be just regular Veterans like me, and all Veterans were welcomed into Heroes Hall. After talking for a while and getting to know them better, they seemed to think that I was a “real” Vet too! I felt good about that.

Believe it or not, The Army thought I was a “real” war veteran. They awarded me the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB), along with some other medals that I put away in a drawer after returning home, hidden for 40 years. Even though I didn’t get them out again until I became a grandfather, it seems like that should count.

And as it turned out, the VA also thinks that I am a “real” Vet. The more I volunteered and the more time I spent in the VA facility, the more comfortable I became with it. I even started seeing some of the doctors there, and they found that I didn’t return home unscathed! The wounds just took a while to be diagnosed. Besides having had malaria, I have been diagnosed by the VA doctors as having service-connected PTSD, and also service-connected Cancer which the VA attributes to agent orange exposure in Vietnam.

It’s very possible that you didn’t come home unscathed either. The VA has a whole list of cancers and heart disease and diabetes and a lot of other medical ailments that they attribute to agent orange exposure. If you haven’t already, it’s worth checking into because many of us were exposed unknowingly to agent orange, regardless of our duty assignments and roles in combat or non-combat activity. Agent Orange wasn’t selective! You may have read the following assertion regarding the ticking time bomb named Agent Orange; which goes something like this: We survived, came home from the war, and brought death home with us. That makes me ask: how many of us are still dying from the war? And, does that count?

And, I found out that you didn’t have to be in “heavy combat” to suffer from PTSD. I went all those years without seeking treatment because I questioned whether I was even a “real” vet and therefore couldn’t possibly have PTSD (think denial!) So, if you have asked yourselves similar questions, like the ones that I have raised here, or have had some similar thoughts or feelings or doubts about the effects of your service, that in itself can be a form of or a part of PTSD. It’s estimated that 30% of Vietnam Veterans suffer from PTSD. It’s treatable and it’s worth seeking help for. AND it counts!

It has been more than ten years ago now that I wrote this preface in my book Rucksack Grunt :

You can engage in a conversation with 1,000 different Vietnam Veterans and get 1,000 different stories about their war experience. Some guys had it bad; some guys had it not so bad. It all depends on what part of the country they were in, what year they served in, and what their specific MOS and duty assignments were.
They all served.

So in closing…. To all of my fellow Vietnam Veterans:
If you can relate to this story in some way or if you have ever asked yourself: “Am I a Real Vietnam Veteran?”

Yes, WE all served!
and Yes, it all counts!

I like to think that is the answer.

An essay by Robert Kuhn
B-Co. 1/22 Infantry 1971-1972.
https://rucksackgrunt.com

With contributions by Michael Belis
C-Co. 1/22 Infantry 1970-1971.
www.1-22infantry.org

Please use the form below if you would like to comment on this essay.
I would love to read your thoughts and opinions.

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