AT PEACE, AT LAST: AFTER 11 YEARS AND AN EMOTIONAL PARADE, VIETNAM VETS FINALLY FEEL WELCOME
This story by William Mullen orginally ran in the Aug. 17, 1986, Tribune Sunday Magazine.
At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, June 13, three men left the entrance to Navy Pier and began moving west along Grand Avenue. The three were old soldiers, the point men leading tens of thousands of their comrades in Chicago`s belated parade to welcome home the Vietnam veterans. As grand marshal there was the general who had commanded more than half a million men in the war. As honorary parade marshal there was the paraplegic veteran in a wheelchair who at a suburban swimming pool just a week before the parade had again become a hero. As chairman of the parade organizers there was the much-decorated ex-platoon sergeant who was still fighting to survive the aftereffects of the war.
Wieland was drafted in 1968 after attending the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse and just as he was going to sign a contract to play baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies. On June 14, 1969, two months after arriving in Vietnam as an Army medic, he stepped on a booby-trapped mortar round. When he woke up in a hospital five days later, the 6-foot 205-pound athlete discovered that both of his legs had been blown off almost at the hips. His new weight was 87 pounds.
Exactly a year after he lost his legs, Wieland won a gold medal in weight lifting in the middleweight division of the bench press in the National Wheelchair Olympics. Not satisfied with wheelchair competition, he competed for the next 10 years against able-bodied lifters. He did well, too, eventually establishing four bantamweight world records. The records never were recognized by the Amateur Athletic Union, however, for of a number of technical reasons revolving around his disability, one being that he was not wearing shoes.
Bob Wieland is an irrepressible sort, though. The 40-year-old Milwaukee native, who now lives in California, had arrived in Chicago that morning. He was determined that he would march and march his own way. That meant pulling himself along with his hands, dragging himself upright, the bottom of his torso fitted with a specially tailored pad. He had, in fact, just a month earlier finished a three-year walk from California to Washington, D.C., to raise money to fight world hunger.
The parade organizers were delighted that he had showed up, but they weren`t quite sure where to put him in the line of march.
``Would you mind walking at the head of the parade with Gen. Westmoreland?`` somebody asked Wieland. Westmoreland, after all, had emerged from America`s most unpopular war as a controversial figure, even among the men who served under him. As leader of all United States military personnel in Vietnam at the height of the conflict, he is often used, fairly or unfairly, as a symbol of the failed leadership of the war. No matter. Wieland said he would be proud to march with Westmoreland.
``Would you mind if Bob Wieland marched with you?`` somebody asked Westmoreland. After all, another legless vet, Jim Patridge, was to travel the parade route in his wheelchair alongside Westmoreland. Only seven days before the parade Patridge had dropped out of his chair and dragged himself through 60 feet of underbrush to reach and save a drowning 1-year-old from a swimming pool in west suburban Pleasant Hill. Because of his heroics, he was made honorary parade marshal. Officials weren`t sure if Westmoreland would want to be flanked by two paraplegic veterans.
Westmoreland was resplendent in full uniform for the parade. That was unusual, as he has rarely appeared in uniform since he retired from the military. But the general had confided to a friend that morning that he wanted to be in uniform for the parade because ``somehow today it just feels right.`` And, no, he wouldn`t mind at all if Bob Wieland joined him, Patridge and Stack at the head of the column.
It was a minor last-minute hitch, but Stack, 42, was relieved that it was resolved. For 13 months Stack, a professor of criminal justice at Richard J. Daley College, had been the driving force organizing the parade. As a sergeant he had led a combat platoon with the Army`s 9th Infantry Division through Vietnam`s Mekong Delta region in 1968 and 1969, winning Purple Hearts and Silver Stars along the way.
Indeed, he says he had dreamed of organizing an event such as the parade since he was called a ``baby killer`` by an antiwar protester on the day he returned to the U.S. from the war in 1969. Too many men had gone to Vietnam, serving honorably and with valor, and too many had died to be dismissed by their own countrymen as unfortunate dupes caught up in an accident of history, collectively thought of as a bunch of baby killers and drug addicts.
For more than a year, then, Stack and a small group of fellow veterans had sweated, cajoled, begged and borrowed the Chicago parade into existence. The idea of seeing the day when he and his fellow veterans could look back with pride on their service and their sacrifice may have had a special urgency for Stack. He is battling lymph cancer, now in remission after a year and a half of chemotherapy. It is the type of cancer that many thousands of Vietnam veterans now are battling, linked to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant widely used to uncover the jungle sanctuaries of the enemy.
And so it was that at 9:30 on this balmy Friday morning in the middle of June that four men, each wounded in his own way and still suffering from a war that ended 11 years earlier, led off a parade in its remembrance. And the collection of humanity they were leading was awesome.
Two hundred thousand men and women veterans from every state in the union had gathered patiently at Navy Pier. Each had come because he or she wanted to come, underscoring that each in some fashion or degree also felt wounded by the war. Some had come alone, some in twos and threes. Many came with large groups of fellow veterans. Thousands brought their wives and children to march with them. Some came with their fathers, veterans of earlier wars. A few mothers came alone, bearing photos of dead sons, yearning for a moment of public recognition of their sacrifice. They were white, black, Hispanic, Oriental and American Indian. They were shod in sturdy work boots and supple wingtips. They wore pinstriped suits and motorcycle jackets. Their mood was an almost eerie combination of jubilant pride and funereal solemnity.
And as the parade stepped off, nobody, including Tom Stack, knew what the reaction would be along its 2 1/2-mile route. Would there be a respectable crowd lining the sidewalks? Did enough people care to turn out for the march? Would they be respectful? Or would there be protesters and catcalls and ugly incidents reminiscent of the war years? Given that 200,000 veterans had gathered, however, it didn`t seem to matter how many people came to see their parade. This was the largest such gathering of veterans ever, and they, at least, understood each other and why they were there.
Just as the group was leaving Navy Pier, Bob Wieland said something that put just the right spin on the spirit that would pervade the city for the rest of the day. He began to pull himself along with his hands and, laughing, turned to Stack, Westmoreland and Patridge.
``If I go too fast for you fellas,`` he told them, ``let me know, and I`ll slow up.``
``My God,`` Westmoreland said to a friend marching behind him, his eyes brimming with tears, ``what guts. What guts.``
Westmoreland`s tears may have been among the earliest shed during the day, but they would not be the only ones. The spectacle of 200,000 veterans of an unpopular, unsuccessful war touched an emotional chord in the city that had not been touched since the last Americans escaped from Vietnam by way of the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975.
For the first few blocks along Grand Avenue the crowds were thin but enthusiastic. Scattered clumps of spectators cheered and clapped from the sidewalks, while construction workers perched high above the street yelled down encouragement and draped ``welcome home`` signs from the skeletons of their buildings. As the marchers approached the bridge carrying Michigan Avenue over Grand, the crowds thickened, and so did the emotion.
Office workers from Michigan Avenue began pouring out of skyscrapers, joining the housewives, children and retirees who had come downtown early to line the route. Young women who must have been infants during the war, now in dressed-for-success suits and jogging shoes, were sobbing and yelling to the veterans. Middle-aged men, eyes red-rimmed, stood in business suits transfixed by the spectacle marching past.
At Michigan Avenue the veterans began craning their necks, wide-eyed in wonderment at the reception they were getting. The men marching with their old units, such as 3d Marine, 11th Airborne and 1st Cavalry divisions, for the most part were marching as strangers. It had been a long and widely scattered war, and it was hard to find anybody else who had served in the same company or regiment at the same time and place.
No matter. As the spectators swelled in number and support, the veterans spontaneously began chanting old marching cadences and singing service songs that most of them likely hadn`t sung in years. Good-natured rivalry began to break out between units marching in succession. ``Air Force! Air Force!`` one group would begin to shout in unison. ``Marines! Marines!`` would come the answer. ``Airborne! Airborne!`` ``Air Cav! Air Cav!`` Tears began to streak the battered faces of veterans who looked so hardened that they would rather die than show such emotion. Arms began to entwine in the ranks, to drape and hug shoulders. Wives marching with their men leaned into them, kissed them, adored them, while their children seemed bedazzled by it all.
The endless columns of marchers continued under Michigan Avenue along Grand, up to State Street, south across the river. The crowds continued to deepen along with the emotion. West along Wacker Drive, then south into La Salle Street, which was to be the focal point, the glory ground of the parade, billed by its promoters as the biggest ticker-tape welcome in the nation`s history.
As Westmoreland, Stack, Patridge and Wieland turned the corner, the sidewalks of La Salle Street were eight deep with people, and the air was a blizzard of shredded paper. It was a blizzard that would fall for five continuous hours, until the very last of the 200,000 veterans had marched down the street. As the ticker tape piled up on the ground, spectators picked it up and threw it again. Veterans standing on the sidewalks who had chosen not to march began to slip out of the crowd and into the stream of their comrades.
``Welcome,`` the crowds shouted to the marchers. ``Welcome home. We love you.``
``Thank you, Chicago,`` the marchers shouted back. ``Thank you. Thank you.``
With only eight bands and a few floats interspersed in the long lines of soldiers, it became less of a parade and more of a mass embrace. Women began rushing into the line of march, randomly hugging veterans. Veterans complied by surging out of the line of march and into the crowds, hugging the women and shaking every extended hand they encountered.
Westmoreland dropped out of the parade near City Hall to view the procession as it passed in front of the the official reviewing stand. Again, nobody knew what the reaction would be from his former troops as they passed him. Much of Westmoreland`s reputation is in tatters now, all the more so since he dropped a multimillion-dollar libel suit against the Columbia Broadcasting System in February of last year. He had charged that CBS falsely accused him of deliberately doctoring enemy troop strengths, but his case was irreparably damaged by testimony from his own wartime subordinates that supported the network.
Indeed, if there was any controversy at all about the Chicago parade, it came from honoring Westmoreland as parade marshal. Many veterans are at least ambiguous about Westmoreland`s role in the war and his style of leadership, which seemed more managerial to them than warriorlike.
No matter. Most of the veterans marching in the parade weren`t aware that Westmoreland was present until they reached the reviewing stand. And when they did, invariably there was an undercurrent of amazement that passed through their ranks.
``Hey! Westy`s here!`` ``Look! It`s Westmoreland!`` ``The old man came!`` And invariably each unit, each clump of men and women, would stop in front of the reviewing stand to cheer the old general. Whatever their personal feelings about Westmoreland may have been, he has become such a lightning rod for criticism of his war--and their war--that a real sense of sympathy seems to have grown between him and his ex-troops.
Most of the units that stopped to salute Westmoreland lingered until the parade`s public-address announcer pleaded for them to move on, to keep the procession moving.
Move on it did. To the end of La Salle Street and around the corner, east on Jackson Boulevard to Grant Park, ending with a concert at the Petrillo band shell. Ironically, the parade route passed sites of some of the most intense antiwar battles and demonstrations during the Vietnam years. It passed the Dirksen Federal Building, site of the infamous ``Chicago Seven`` trial in which seven protest leaders stood accused in 1969 of conspiring to disrupt Chicago`s 1968 Democratic Convention. It ended in the park where protesters demanding an end to the war and expressing support for the communist Vietnamese cause fought pitched battles with Chicago police during the convention week in 1968.
No matter. A long time has passed since the streets of Chicago reverberated with the chant: ``Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Ho Chi Minh is going to win!`` On parade day the streets reverberated only with welcome. The welcome followed the parade right into the park. The parade watchers, including thousands of office workers who gave up any pretense of returning to their jobs that day, stayed with the veterans, shaking their hands, buying them beers in the park.
How many people turned out to honor the veterans is difficult to pin down. The official estimate is 300,000, though it could have been more, given that it was a normal working day and so many Loop workers rushed back and forth from their jobs to see the parade in bits and pieces. It is even more difficult to establish why the parade provoked the emotional response that it did. If there were in fact 200,000 marchers and 300,000 observers, it must have been the most intimate gathering of half a million individuals in the history of the city.
To watch it on television was not enough. The four local stations that covered the parade live had set up their cameras as though it would be a conventional march, using lots of wide-angle shots to capture the panoply of crowds, bands and floats. The essence of the spectacle, however, was much narrower in focus. It was as if half a million individuals were caught up in singular private reveries and spontaneous one-on-one displays of emotion.
``There was such a spontaneity about the event,`` says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, ``such an all-pervasive feeling of friendliness, good will and unity. The only thing I can think of that ever happened before in this country that had the spirit of that day was Woodstock (the music festival).
``That might sound strange, given the tenor of the times when Woodstock was the ultimate happening, with all its antiwar undercurrents. But I`m beginning to think of the Chicago parade as a sort of Woodstock for Vietnam veterans, the ultimate event to symbolically begin to close the real and imagined rifts between them and the rest of their countrymen. It`s a pity that none of the networks or the national news magazines paid much attention to the parade because I don`t think there`ll ever be another one quite the same as this one.``
A woman interviewed by The Tribune shortly after the parade ended perhaps best explained what was going on that day:
``I didn`t want to leave while some of them hadn`t come yet. I kept looking for the end, but the line went back forever. But it was more than that. You just couldn`t leave. I don`t know. It was those times. I guess there was more bottled up inside me from those times than I was aware of.``
The idea that it isn`t just the Vietnam vets who have bottled up some dark memories for the last 15 years was one of the reasons that Tom Stack says he thought the parade was necessary.
``The whole country still has some healing to do,`` he says, ``not just the veterans. This parade turned out to be the biggest group therapy session I`ve ever seen.``
In 1972, a year when American troops still were in combat in Vietnam, a nationwide Louis Harris poll indicated that 61 percent of all Americans thought Vietnam was a war ``we could never win.`` The same poll indicated that 49 percent of all Americans thought Vietnam veterans ``were made suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong war at the wrong time.`` A follow-up poll by the Harris organization in 1979 indicated that the number of Americans who thought the veterans were ``suckers`` had grown to 64 percent.
``Sucker.`` That is a hard word. Vietnam is a small country, and the American war there will never be considered a big one. Because of that, and because the three presidents during the war tried to minimize the scope of our involvement there, it is easy to forget what a big war it was. Lasting from 1961 to 1973, it was longer than the Civil War and our years in World Wars I and II combined. World War II was our biggest war, during which 15 million Americans were in uniform. Through the years in Vietnam 9 million Americans served in the military, 3 million in the war zone. That is a lot of people for two-thirds of all Americans to regard as suckers.
``There were 27 million men who came of age during the Vietnam era,``
says Phil Meyer, a combat veteran and a parade organizer who works as a counselor at the Veterans Center at 547 W. Roosevelt Rd., ``and only 9 million of them went into the military. Two-thirds of their own generation had deferments and were excused from the war. One of the big problems among the men who come here for counseling is the notion that they were duped.
``No one wants to live with that rage. `Why was I so dumb? Why didn`t I see it?` It is a false notion, but a lot of veterans have gone through a long period of shutting themselves off from such feelings, of not recognizing them and examining them.``
Of those who went to Vietnam, a remarkable number went out of a sense of idealism. In World War II the majority of men were drafted. In Vietnam 80 percent who served there volunteered. And after arriving in the war zone, the soldiers in Vietnam had a lower combat-desertion rate than Americans in any other war.
But war is war, and idealism does not wear well in combat. For the soldier in battle, war is reduced to a desperate contest to survive. The classic studies of combat have confirmed that the overwhelming impetus for the average soldier in battle is to protect his buddies in his immediate unit--and thus himself--from harm. Soldiers in Vietnam, as in every war, forged bonds in battle that in many ways are stronger than those between brothers.
To believe that comrades who were killed in battle next to you died for nothing, that they, like you, were duped into serving, has been a bitter pill for Vietnam veterans to swallow. Yet it is a bitterness that many veterans have chosen to chew on alone, in solitude, because of the way they were sent to and brought back from the war.
In World War II most men who saw combat were trained in battalions in the U.S., sent overseas intact as a unit and fought together for the duration of the war. When they came home, they came home as a unit, generally on a long ride in a slow-moving ship. And once they were home, though most did not have a homecoming parade, they were welcomed universally. The people who had remained back home supported the war and the reasons for fighting it. Indeed, they themselves had suffered during that war from, if nothing else, strict government rationing of such necessities as food and gasoline.
But in the case of Vietnam most soldiers were sent into the war under a one-year rotation system. After receiving combat training in the U.S., they were sent to Vietnam individually rather than in units, obligated to serve for one year from the day of their arrival. Once they were ``in country`` in Vietnam, each was assigned to a unit that needed a new body to replace one that had been killed, wounded or rotated home. If they survived their year intact, they were plucked from the field one day by a helicopter, shuttled to an airbase and put on a plane for America.
The average age of the Vietnam combat veteran was 19, compared to 27 in World War II. The speed with which they could be moved from combat back to the U.S., and the anonymous nature by which it was done, allowed them no time to decompress from the battle zone. Nor did they have time to talk out their experiences with someone they could trust to understand them.
``Never in the history of this country was a veteran taken out of battle in the field to the living room of his home in the U.S. within 36 hours,``
says Vietnam vet counselor Meyer. ``One day you had a gun in your hand, grenades hanging around your neck and the balance of peoples` lives in your hands. The next day you were home among people who often were fed up with the war. They didn`t want to understand what you had been through, and, in fact, they felt some hostility towards you, blaming you for fighting, for the war itself.``
One of the most painful aspects of the Vietnam War was the way it divided an entire generation of Americans--the young people who went to war and those who didn`t. ``Our harshest critics as veterans,`` says Meyer, ``were our own people, our own generation.``
It wasn`t hard to stay out of the military during the war. The government was liberal with college- and graduate-school deferments. And it wasn`t long before a preponderance of men going to war came from lower-class and lower-middle-class families. As American involvement expanded in Vietnam, the antiwar movement and political radicalism exploded on campuses at home. By 1968 the nation was as riveted by the fighting on campuses--by full-scale riots, seizures of buildings and bombings--as it was by the war itself. The radical politics of the antiwar movement soon spilled into other areas of American life. It fueled and radicalized older existing issues such as Black Power, the feminist movement, gay rights, the American Indian movement.
And the war, if it did not in fact give birth to it, at least was midwife to the phenomenon called the ``counterculture.`` The young men and women who scorned the war showed their scorn for the system that allowed it to happen. They became what 20 years later seems an almost quaint term: ``hippies.`` They rejected the values of their parents` generation by adopting long hair and beards, outlandish clothing, drugs and promiscuity. In many ways the allure of the counterculture was as seductive to the GIs in Vietnam as it was to their counterparts back home. But the more searing reality of their experience in the war served also to cut them off from the counterculture, whose disciples often regarded returning veterans as enemies.
When the veterans flew home from Vietnam, usually eager to find their niche in the topsy-turvy world that America had become, they were often violently turned away. Jim Bowen was barely 20 years old when he came home from Vietnam just before Christmas in 1967 from a year of heavy combat with the 1st Cavalry Division. The 1st Cav had taken heavy casualties that year, many of them Bowen`s friends. He was on a plane with 250 men he didn`t know, all of them rotating home. The plane landed in Tacoma, Wash., where the men were loaded on buses and driven to Ft. Lewis Army base to receive their pay, new uniforms, a handshake and a ticket to their hometowns. In Bowen`s case, it was Chicago. ``I couldn`t wait to get home,`` says Bowen, 39, now a stockbroker in California. ``I wanted to get into college and get back into life. We`d been reading in Nam about all the stuff going on Stateside, and some of it sounded real good. Like the sexual revolution. If there was one of those, I wanted to join it right away.
``When the plane landed in Tacoma, everybody on it was going nuts. I think we all got on our hands and knees and kissed the ground. When we got on the bus, it had bars all over the window, and I couldn`t figure out why. Then when we got to Lewis, there were pickets outside throwing eggs and stuff and screaming that we were baby killers and war criminals. They were young kids like us. Then I thought the barred windows were to protect us, not the other way around. Boy, the guys were mad. If we had gotten out, we would have taken their heads off. Nobody was going to tell me that my friends died for nothing. ``At Lewis I got my pay and new uniform with a combat infantryman`s badge. I was real proud of it and wore it to the Seattle airport on my way home to Chicago. If you had a patch showing you were in combat, you were something special. There were more protesters at the airport, and as soon as they saw my uniform, they started yelling at me. When I got home, I wouldn`t wear it at all. My mother wanted me to wear it to midnight mass because it was Christmastime. No way. I didn`t want to be yelled at anymore.``
Bowen enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 1968 using GI Bill benefits: ``You try going to college in 1968 as a 21-year-old freshman and a combat veteran when practically the whole school is mobilized against the war. The students, they`re hating your guts, thinking you`re a killer, afraid of you. There was a vets club there, and I joined it. There were about 100 of us guys, and we helped each other through. Otherwise I wouldn`t have made it.
``One time, after the students were killed at Kent State, we heard that the (antiwar) movement people were going to pull the main flag on campus down to half-staff in their memory. That got our guys real mad. Nobody had pulled it down to half-staff to honor our friends when they got killed. So we slept around the pole that night, all 100 of us. The next morning there were about 5,000 of them and 100 of us, but they didn`t get to the flag. There were some fistfights, but they were afraid of us, thank God. I kept arguing with those people that they shouldn`t do anything to hurt the guys who were still over there (in Vietnam).``
In the late 1960s and early `70s the Vietnam veterans started appearing at the threshholds of more traditional veterans organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. More often than not they received a chilly reception. Those organizations were dominated from the national level down to the smallest local posts by older generations of men from World Wars I and II and the Korean War.
The Vietnam vets, understandably, were attempting to adapt to the lifestyle and appearance of their own generation, which meant beads, bellbottoms and beards. That was anathema to older veterans, proud of their own service in the ``big`` wars, proud they had won their wars and angered by the turmoil and destruction of traditional values that were represented by the Vietnam generation. As a result, very few Vietnam vets initially joined their organizations.
Both the VFW and the Legion have since actively recruited 600,000 and 700,000 Vietnam-era veterans respectively. But many Vietnam vets have a hard time to this day forgiving the earlier rejection and have instead formed their own, burgeoning organizations, such as Vietnam Veterans of America and Viet NOW.
The federal government wasn`t prepared to handle the men and women who served in Vietnam, either. In the case of World War II only 45 percent of the discharged veterans had high school degrees. But after using the GI Bill, they were 46-percent more likely to have received a college diploma than their nonveteran contemporaries. In the Vietnam War 79 percent of the discharged veterans had high school diplomas. But the GI Bill offered them only one-third the comparable benefits given to World War II veterans. As of 1978, according to a Veterans Administration study, Vietnam veterans were 45-percent less likely to have gotten a college diploma than their nonveteran contemporaries. In the 1970s Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant dropped over thousands of square miles of combat areas in Vietnam, was linked to frightening health problems among veterans exposed to it. The problems include birth defects in the babies of veterans and an unusually high rate of cancer among the veterans themselves. Rep. David Bonior (D., Mich.), in a 1984 book, ``The Vietnam Veteran: A History of Neglect,`` charges the Veterans Administration and Congress itself with ignoring the plight of Agent Orange victims. He documents a long history of neglect and obstructionist measures by Congress and the VA that forestalled compensation and help for those affected.
When the wounded began arriving from Vietnam, the VA had trouble accommodating them. The giant national network of hospitals it operates were staffed and equipped mainly to treat geriatric patients and chronic problems of older veterans. The VA`s efforts to cope with the influx of Vietnam casualties sometimes resulted in disgrace. Photographs appeared in national magazines of rats running underneath hospital beds occupied by Vietnam amputees assigned to hallway quarters in overcrowded hospitals.
It isn`t surprising that many, perhaps the majority, of the Vietnam vets tried to stop thinking about the war. They packed away their memories with their photographs and uniforms.
``The fashionable thing to do since the war finally ended has been to pretend it never happened,`` says Joe Yount, a psychologist at the VA`s West Side Medical Center. ``That pretense has been damaging not only to the veteran but to all of us.``
Some of the more insidious wounds that have resulted from the war have been drug and alcohol abuse, high rates of divorce, chronic unemployment, loneliness and depression. The VA only in recent years has attempted to reach out to vets through special neighborhood counseling centers, such as the one where Phil Meyer works.
Despite the unhappy experiences of coming home, the alienation so many veterans seem to feel may be based more on illusion than fact. The same Harris poll in 1972 that branded Vietnam vets as ``suckers`` also indicated that 95 percent of all Americans thought the Vietnam veterans deserved respect for having served in the armed forces during the war. When confronted with the statement that ``the real heroes of the Vietnam War are the boys who refused induction and faced the consequences, and not those who served . . . ,`` 83 percent of those polled disagreed.
The survey concluded that the most striking disclosure of the poll was the ``deeply seated guilt feelings on the part of the American public regarding the way veterans of this war are being treated.``
``The relatively quiet, hidden suffering these guys have been going through all these years may well be based on a couple of false assumptions,`` says Yount, the VA psychologist. ``A nonveteran can always assume that vets don`t want to talk about the war. On the other hand, it is easy for vets to assume that civilians don`t want to talk about it.
``The natural tendency is to shut up and wait. But an event like the war can`t tolerate that kind of silence. That defense has to break down because whether we`re veterans or civilians, we still have this growing sense of irritation that this thing will not die. When you`ve been through a major trauma--and the war was certainly that for everybody in this country--it will simply continue to come back until it is treated.``
The silence that surrounded Vietnam began to break down in 1982, and it began to break down through the efforts of the veterans themselves. That was the year that the Vietnam monument, now known almost universally simply as
``The Wall,`` was unveiled in Washington, D.C. Its design was commissioned by a group of concerned veterans, who collected the money for its
construction. The money came chiefly from other veterans, including donations of more than $1 million from the American Legion, which by then had become far more open to the plight of Vietnam vets.
The unveiling of The Wall in November, 1982, attended by 150,000 marching veterans, provoked a national outpouring of sympathy and tapped a reservoir of grief for the 58,000 whose names are on it. A similar ceremony in 1984 dedicating a statue near The Wall depicting three exhausted combat soldiers in Vietnam had the same effect. In May, 1985, New York City, at the unveiling of its own Vietnam memorial, held a ticker-tape parade down Broadway for 27,000 veterans.
Three of the marchers in the New York parade were Chicagoans Tom Stack, Roger McGill and Julio Gonzalez. Stack knew McGill, 43, a middle-level executive at Illinois Bell Telephone Co., and Gonzalez, 38, a janitor for General Motors Corp., from an organization of vets suffering from effects of Agent Orange. All three were moved by the outpouring of good will from the bystanders along Broadway. Stack revived his dream of doing something in Chicago.
Two days after the New York parade Stack was in Mayor Harold Washington`s office, asking to see the mayor or one of his top aides. His idea for a parade sparked some cautious interest among some of the mayor`s aides, as it did with aides to Ald. Bernard Stone, chairman of the City Council`s special events committee. Stack and his friends were encouraged enough to start planning.
``From the start,`` Stack says, ``we wanted the parade to be something organized by veterans for veterans. We needed backing from the city, of course, and help from others. But we didn`t want a hint of politics in the parade or anything that hinted of jingoism or the idea of `hooray for war.` We wanted to put together something memorable, something that would show veterans in a different light, something with a healing spirit to it.``
Through the summer of 1985 the veterans met frequently at one another`s houses. As word traveled through the grapevine, veterans whom Stack and the others didn`t know joined them. Phil Meyer came in, as did Angelo Terrell, assistant Illinois director of the U.S. Department of Labor, and Larry Langowski, another Illinois Bell executive. So did Connie Edwards, a former nurse who served in Vietnam, and John Wright, an ex-helicopter pilot who runs his own media-consulting business in Oak Park. Ken Plummer, another Oak Parker and a retired Army colonel who had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, came in with a wealth of knowledge on organizing special events.
In fact, when the group announced its first organizational meeting at City Hall last September, they reserved a room seating 50, but 500 veterans showed up, eager to help out. There were some surprising encounters at the meetings. Men who worked in the same large corporations and banks and knew each other professionally were shocked to find out they were fellow veterans. A lot of the men, because of the stigma surrounding Vietnam vets, had found it convenient professionally not bring up their service histories unless asked.
Two vets who are executives with Jefferies and Co. Inc., a brokerage firm at 55 W. Monroe St., called and offered a vacant suite in their offices. Thus, without any money, the committee acquired a posh office with four telephones at a toney address. Early on the committee members thought they could do the whole show for $1.5 million. They hoped to attract large corporate donations but never raised more than $300,000. The city promised $75,000 in seed money to get them started but dragged its feet until March, 1986, before releasing the first $25,000. ``We were just an ad hoc committee with no track record whatsoever,`` says Langowski. ``We didn`t have any credibility with the business community, and in a way I can`t blame them. They had no idea who we were, whether we were trying to stage something to bolster some left-wing or right-wing cause. We had this image problem (characteristic) of all Vietnam vets, of being pictured as a group of ponytails and fatigue jackets.``
Most corporate donors they solicited were polite but unresponsive. The committee`s lack of credibility hurt them with military organizations as well. Bands from the various services at first begged off appearing in the parade, claiming they were already booked. Similarly the VA said it would be impossible to bring busloads of hospitalized vets to ride in the parade.
But letters with $5 and $10 donations enclosed began to come in from veterans and nonveterans who had heard about the parade. Neighborhood bars began throwing benefit nights in support of the parade that raised $200, $500 or $1,000 at a time.
Even so, in January of this year, the committee was barely paying for the postage. Starting with a mailing list of 2,500 veterans organizations and individuals around the country, it sent them notices of the parade and asked them to spread the word. The list grew to 12,400 names. Positive responses began to pour in. ``We were sure all along,`` Stack says, ``because Chicago is in the Midwest and is such a transportation hub that we would have no trouble getting more veterans to march here than in New York. We were thinking of 35,000 to 50,000, and I was beginning to think maybe even 100,000.``
``We didn`t want just veterans,`` Stack says, ``we wanted them to bring their families, too, so we wrapped four days of activities around our parade, hoping people would make a mini-vacation out of it.``
Mindful that few blacks had turned out for the Washington and New York events, the committee drew black vets into the group at the outset and held many of their organizational meetings in the city`s black neighborhoods. As an added draw for out-of-town vets the committee arranged four-day reunions of the various national divisional associations in downtown hotels. The associations are made up of men who have served in divisional units such as the Americal or 101st Airborne divisions in the Army or the 3d Division in the Marines.
More than two dozen associations held reunions on parade weekend, including a group of Australians who had fought in the war and came to Chicago for the parade. Some of the divisional reunions attracted several thousand men in their own right.
The committee also brought in the half-sized traveling replica of The Wall in Washington, D.C. They placed it in Grant Park a week early to stir interest in the parade all week long.
By appealing to veterans of America`s earlier wars to join the parade, the committee was trying to make a point, too. ``We thought the parade should be a unifying influence in all ways,`` says Ken Plummer. ``The idea was,
`Let`s close the gap between Vietnam veterans and vets of other eras and get over the estrangement.` That`s why we brought in 80 Medal of Honor winners from four wars, to symbolize the continuity of service and valor.``
But the parade was, ultimately, for the Vietnam vets. The organizers built the theme of the parade around problems growing out of the war that continue to confront Vietnam veterans: Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, prisoners of war, an unemployment rate of 24 percent among black veterans.
Two weeks before the parade the committee knew their meticulous planning was paying off. From responses they were getting by mail and telephone, it predicted that 100,000 veterans would march, even though most of the local news media and city officials rolled their eyes in skepticism.
The last four days before the parade the four phones at the parade headquarters never stopped ringing.
``A lot of those phone calls in the last few days were really touching,`` Ken Plummer recalls. ``A lot of them were from wives who were anxious for their men to march and get their feelings out in the open, wanting to know how to convince them to come. Were they too late? they wanted to know. Did they have to wear their uniforms?
`` `No. No,` we`d tell them. `Just come. Wear an old patch if you want to or a whole uniform. It doesn`t matter. What`s his old unit?` Sometimes you`d hear her muffled voice, asking somebody about his old unit. The guy must have been standing right there and was too nervous to call himself.`` The fact that 200,000 veterans turned out on the morning of the parade is testament to how badly they wanted to come.
Tom Lewis, 39, a Chicago security guard supervisor was 19 in 1967 when he fought with Company A, 1st Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Regiment in the 1st Cavalry Division. He saw heavy action. Afterwards he was never comfortable with memories of the war, so, he says, he decided not to march. ``The night before, though, I started rethinking it. I got two brothers in California who were there (in Vietnam), too, and they got Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. I figured somebody should represent the family. The next morning I went to Navy Pier and found the 1st Cav unit, and I started feeling more comfortable with the whole idea.``
Once the parade started, Lewis says, he looked over and saw another 1st Cav vet, and a look of recognition spread over their faces. It was Jim Bowen, the veteran who had been harassed by antiwar protesters on his return from Vietnam and then in college. They had served together in the same company.
Before the weekend was over, Lewis and Bowen found two other men from the company, including their old captain. They learned from the captain that on the basis of a fierce battle they had fought on March 21, 1967, their entire company had been awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. The citation is a distinction rarely bestowed on a company-sized unit and was awarded so many years after the fact that only a few members of Lewis and Bowen`s company were tracked down and informed of the honor. They found out, too, that their medic had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. ``I can`t tell you how glad I was that I went to that parade,`` Lewis says. ``To see these guys and to find out what we had done, I can`t express the pride I feel now. To see people on both sides of the street cheering us, well, it made me feel good, but it was good for the country to feel it, too.``
Jim Hennigan, a 40-year-old Chicago policeman who had been a military policeman running convoys around the Saigon area in 1968, hadn`t planned to march until the day before the parade: ``I think I was like a lot of other guys, worried that the parade would end up being some big political statement one way or the other, expressing something I didn`t believe in.``
But the day before the parade his 18-year-old nephew, who had read every letter Hennigan had written home to his mother and father during the war, asked if he would march so that the nephew could march with him. The night before the parade Hennigan pulled out an old shoebox and sorted through pictures of buddies and Vietnamese friends from the war. In the morning, before he and his nephew left home for the Loop, he stuck several of the photos in his shirt pocket over his heart.
``These are the ones who won`t be here to march,`` he told his nephew.
``At least I can share it with them this way.``
Hennigan says he was staggered by his own reaction to the parade. ``I wasn`t prepared for all the things that happened back then to start unfolding again now. That was the surprise--the emotional release on all sides. If you`ve never been cheered by half a million people before, you`d like to do it every Friday.``
David King, 37, a house painter in Cornucopia, Wis., says he rejected the idea of the parade when he heard about it earlier this year. ``My feelings were that it was much too late to attempt something like this,`` he says. ``At least 15 years too late.``
Vice commander of his local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, King says he and the chapter commander had argued about the merits of coming down to Chicago. Both have had serious problems adjusting since the war, he says. The commander wanted to go but couldn`t afford to; King could afford to but didn`t want to. But at midnight before the parade he changed his mind, called his buddy, picked him up, lent him $100 and set off for Chicago.
They drove all night, 500 miles, stopping only for gas and coffee. They arrived after the parade had started. King parked his camper on the south side of the Loop, and the two men raced down the parade route, looking for their units. Breathless, King came on his, the 1st Cavalry, in time to march past the reviewing stand. ``Seeing all those guys,`` he says, ``it was like I was back in 1970, coming home looking ragged and tired. I was higher than a kite from pure emotion. It brought me down to earth and took me up at the same time. It`s the first time in a long time that I lost that angry attitude I`ve had since the war.
``I spent the next three days wandering all over the city, looking at faces, trying to find somebody I knew back then. I didn`t find anybody I knew, but I spent a lot of time at The Wall because my best friend is on there. Our tours were up about the same time, and we were taking care of each other over there so we could go home together. He went out on a survey detail a week before I left and got blown up. I don`t know, it just felt nice to be by the wall, to know that somebody who knew him was there during this thing.``
Though many men were wary of marching in the parade, nothing could keep Tim Sheehe, 40, a steelworker from Newark, N.Y., from coming to Chicago. He had been to the Washington and New York parades, and he says the spiritual lift that he gets from being with other veterans has turned his life around.
``The thing for me,`` he says, ``is to find guys from my own unit. You didn`t use name tags when you were in combat, so you didn`t know guys` real names unless you asked. For me, I didn`t ask. I knew most guys by the nicknames they used. `Ski` if he was Polish. `Detroit` if he was from Detroit and so on. I didn`t want to get real close with no one in case something happened. But I didn`t realize until later that these were the best friends I ever would have, and it was too late to track them down. The thing is, if you run into these guys now that you knew back then and they`re healthy and their kids are healthy, you can`t describe the lift it gives you.``
Sheehe joined a 1st Cavalry company as a replacement in March, 1968, as the ``FNG.`` FNG is a GI acronym that when spelled out is partly unprintable but was used to describe the new guys coming into the unit. As an FNG Sheehe was assigned to a black squad leader from Chicago who had to break him into the reality of combat. The squad leader gave Sheehe a rough time for a few weeks. He gave him the dirtiest details until he was satisfied that Sheehe was made of the right stuff. Then they became good friends.
``I never got to know his real name,`` Sheehe says of the squad leader,
``but I never forgot him. We got to be real tight over there. We were together just before Christmas, and he was just a few days short. He didn`t know where he was hit, but we both knew it was bad, and they pulled him out. It was like the lights went out of the world.``
Once in Chicago Sheehe spent much of his time circulating throught the 1st Cav contingent looking at faces, looking for somebody, anybody who seemed familiar. He finally came across a black face
that he was sure he knew.
``You carried the radio for the lieutenant,`` were the black`s first words.
``That`s right,`` Sheehe replied. ``You were the squad leader.``
They had found each other again. Jim Walker, 39, a CTA bus driver for the last 16 years, had been wondering since 1968 about Sheehe but didn`t know Sheehe`s full name. The day before he was wounded, Walker says, he attended a mass at which the chaplain spoke about death and how to know, if you were hit, whether you were dead or alive. ``Just blink your eyes,`` the chaplain had said. ``Death is like night and day, and you`ll know if you`re still alive.`` ``When I got hit the next day, I blinked my eyes,`` Walker says, ``and I thought, `Hey, I`m going back to the world.` I got back and just put it all behind me, got a steady job, a lovely wife and two beautiful kids and got on with my life.
``You wanted to stick your chest out, being a veteran and all, but it just wasn`t that way for us guys.
``That`s why I went to the parade, and it made me feel real good. But to look over and see a guy you knew, that was something special. When Tim came into my squad, I gave him a bad time, hauling ammo. You had to, just to see what a guy was made of, to see if he was into drugs or something so you could stay away from him. Those guys could get you hurt.
``But Tim, I saw he was one tough dude right away. He was a natural. He`s white, and I`m black, but you didn`t see that there. If you were a man, you did your job, you were a friend. I didn`t find a better one there than Tim. That`s what the parade did for me; it found Tim Sheehe for me. I`m blessed to find him. I know I am.``
Once the parade and the weekend were over, members of the parade committee closed their office, satisfied that they had produced a once-in-a-lifetime event. ``We needed to do it once,`` Stack says, ``but now it`s time to get on with other things. I hope we`ve heightened consciousness about Vietnam veterans and the issues that still concern them. There won`t be another parade, but a lot of us who worked on it are going to continue to work together in some capacity, particularly in veterans` employment, Agent Orange and the POW-MIA issues.``
Other cities, including Los Angeles and Houston, now are planning their own welcome parades. But Chicago`s, because of its location and its organization, probably will never be duplicated. It pulled so many veterans from every corner of the country. Even the Australian airborne contingent went home determined that their country, too, will have a parade.
``A parade is nothing more than a symbol, but symbols can change a lot of minds, and I think our parade did that,`` says Phil Meyer. ``Most of the vets I`ve talked with who marched in it have said they can`t remember walking down La Salle Street. They only remember this dreamlike thing, the clouds of white coming down on them, their hearts jumping out of their mouths, their crying. It`s what should have happened. It`s what a grateful country does.``
-- William Mullen