DAV Magazine — March/April 2018
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Steven Wilson

Recognizing National Vietnam War Veterans Day

Last year, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, officially recognizing March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The annual observance honors all veterans of the Vietnam War.

While returning veterans from World War II were greeted with ticker tape parades and embraced as national heroes, Vietnam veterans returned to a country divided over the war by politics and socioeconomic status.

“The welcome for returning servicemen and women after the Gulf War and conflicts since stands in stark contrast to the reception our country gave to Vietnam veterans when they returned home,” said National Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster. “But they also faced returning home to a system not adequately prepared to handle their physical and psychological needs.”

Vietnam veterans—even the most severely ill and injured—were initially ineligible for benefits that were available to veterans of previous eras. Veterans became suspicious and distrustful of the government. The VA was not prepared to care for Vietnam veterans.

Many returning veterans experienced chronic symptoms of what is now commonly known as posttraumatic stress disorder, but an official diagnosis for the illness did not yet exist.

Recognizing a need in the veteran community, DAV funded a study in 1976 called The Forgotten Warrior Project. At first, the VA did not act on the findings of the study, prompting DAV to launch its own Vietnam Veterans Outreach program. This development spurred others in the academic and veteran communities to begin researching the illness, and in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association finally recognized PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Additionally, in 1979 the VA established the Vet Center program—modeled after the DAV Vietnam Veterans Outreach Program. That initiative is still in use today to provide veterans and their families a wide range of counseling, outreach and referral services.

“We know now how critical early detection and treatment for mental health conditions can be to keeping veterans out of the dangerous cycle of substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment or— worse—suicide,” said Metcalf-Foster. “In hindsight, how many Vietnam-era veterans could have been helped if the right supports were in place back then?”

Even finding access to basic needs proved to be a hardship to many Vietnam veterans.

“One of the many challenges I faced when it was time to be discharged was finding housing,” said DAV life member Dr. James Kirschke, professor emeritus at Villanova University, who lost both legs after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam. “I couldn’t go back to my family home, a two-story row home entered by a flight of steps, so I began searching for a suitable apartment. It was hard enough in those days to find any building I could get into in a wheelchair, let alone an apartment building.”

Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 would improve accessibility and opportunities for the country’s injured and ill, Kirschke often had to ask classmates or total strangers he met on the street to carry him in his wheelchair up flights of stairs when a building did not have a ramp or elevator. Once while it was raining, he asked several fellow students to help lift him up a small flight of steps. Most refused. Some even laughed.

“I strike these incidents up to the rampant prejudice against veterans at the time, especially wounded veterans who were sometimes seen as deserving of their injuries for participating in an unjust war,” Kirschke said, adding that he is glad things have changed for returning veterans. “The Vietnam War and its veterans were embattled for too long, and it’s time that combat veterans get their due.”

Senior Vice Commander Dennis Nixon was wounded during his second tour in Vietnam as a young Marine in 1969. After recovering from his injuries, he returned to civilian life in a small town in eastern New Mexico in 1970. Although he didn’t experience the same mistreatment as Kirschke, it would be decades before Nixon was ever thanked for his service to the nation.

“I never really received a thank you until after Operation Desert Storm,” Nixon said. “I think we have finally made progress as a country in that regard.”

That progress largely began as a movement within the Vietnam veterans community to ensure future generations were not cast aside or forgotten when they returned home.

“We owe a great deal of our strength as an organization to their collective efforts,” said Metcalf- Foster. “Vietnam veterans have taught us an important lesson about not taking our foot off the gas when it comes to advocating for those who follow us—we have to continue building a better system for the next generation of veterans. And for those of us who came after the war, we have an awful lot to thank the Vietnam generation for.”