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.
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.