With Memorial Day weekend upon us, it’s worth flashing back to a 2004 post by The Mudville Gazette, which reprinted a series of quotes from B.G. “Jug” Burkett, who, in late 2003, received the Army’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award. The award was presented to him by former President George H.W. Bush; few men have done more than Burkett to restore the good name of Vietnam vets, whom the public have often negatively branded as addled losers since the early 1970s and the efforts of a certain Winter Soldier and others. As Burkett has said:
Though I pointed out that many successful Dallas men, such as former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach, had served in Vietnam, to them, men like Staubach were the exceptions to the rule, the rare individuals who were not ruined by their war experiences. “Everybody” knew most soldiers who fought in Vietnam were reluctant draftees, poor minorities, or dumb cannon fodder not smart enough to avoid military service. When I told them that I – a financial adviser with undergraduate and graduate degrees from major universities – had voluntarily served in Vietnam, they looked at me in disbelief.
“You?” one said. “That surprises me. You seem so normal.” Another corporate executive looked right past me – a man with short hair wearing a conservative suit – in his waiting room and asked his secretary, “Where’s that Vietnam veteran who’s here to see me?”
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In the years after returning home from my military service in Vietnam in 1969, I watched the negative images of Vietnam veterans in movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon. I saw the stereotypes on bookshelves, in newspaper stories, on the TV news. By the Eighties, more than two decades after the fighting ended, there were reputedly hundreds of thousands of homeless Vietnam vets, most suffering from PTSD. On top of that, they suffered physical disabilities brought on by poisoning from the defoliant Agent Orange. The common refrain: More men had died by their own hand — victims of suicide — than had been killed during the decade of the War.
Still, the popular perception of Vietnam veterans as victims tortured by memories – drug-abusers, criminals, homeless bums or psychotic losers about to go berserk in a post office with an AK-47 – did not fit me or anybody I knew who had served in Vietnam, even those who had been horribly wounded or captured and tortured by the enemy. Certainly their lives were not always perfect, but their problems could not be attributed to their experiences in Vietnam. I brushed off the negative caricatures thinking, “That’s not reality.”
Sadly, all too often, it still is in Hollywood’s eyes.