The 14 Vietnam veterans from Orange County who gather each Tuesday night at the Vet Center in Anaheim have a great deal in common: most come from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, they served in ground combat as young enlisted men and they suffered nightmares or flashbacks when they returned, and from time to time since. Many have lost wives and jobs.
They are the “grunts,” the people who fought the war and survived. Sort of.
According to Ken Flint, the head of the center and one of three Vietnam vets who serve as counselors, there are approximately 78,000 Vietnam-era vets in Orange County, about 31,000 of whom actually served in Southeast Asia.
Since the center on Harbor Boulevard opened in 1980, Flint said, more than 2,000 veterans have been helped in one way or another. But he estimates that, based on extrapolations from the most recent research, at least 6,200 veterans in Orange County are suffering some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The center runs five groups each week: three like the Tuesday night group, one for active-duty Navy personnel who are inpatients at the Veterans Administration hospital in Long Beach, and a group for wives and girlfriends of veterans. Each session lasts about two hours and continues for eight weeks. The center also offers individual counseling that, like the group sessions, is free.
In addition to their backgrounds and wartime experiences, the vets and the counselors at a recent Tuesday night gathering shared the belief that the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon was the wrong occasion to look back at the Vietnam experience.
“It bothers me,” Bob Springer said. “It brings up visions of the vets’ failing. If the vets had been there, there wouldn’t have been a ‘fall.’ ”
‘The Ultimate Defeat’
“It’s not exactly the high point of the experience,” said Dave Ferrier, one of the counselors. “It’s the ultimate defeat. It’s like saying, ‘Let’s go out and talk to the defeated.’ But the vets don’t feel defeated. If anything, they feel betrayed.”
Questions about the 10th anniversary and the issues it raises provoke hostility toward the press. Using the occasion of a defeat, the veterans said, is typical of the way the media covered the war. They told story after story of how a battle or incident was inaccurately reported. And they expressed bitterness toward journalists who built their careers on the war and then walked away unscathed.
In the years since, they said, newspapers and magazines have continued to identify people accused of violent or anti-social acts as Vietnam veterans, perpetrating what Ken Flint called the “walking time bomb” stereotype, reinforced by its cinematic counterpart, “the super-hero crazy person.”
Nor are they particularly impressed by the more favorable treatment of veterans in the media in the last several years. On the wall are photographs of the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., and the nearby statue. But in one form or another the veterans echoed Ferrier’s suspicion that the sympathetic stories might have a sinister result.
“If we can sanctify the Vietnam vets,” Ferrier said, “it will make it (the combat experience) a little more attractive for the next generation of veterans.”
The majority of veterans, Flint said, never come into the center because they don’t feel the need to. For them--especially men who were out of their teens by the time they entered the service--the war was either a positive experience or one they have been able to put behind them, carving out high-profile careers in various fields and maintaining stable family relationships. But material possessions and on-the-job accomplishment may not always be an accurate gauge of how these vets have dealt with their wartime experiences, the counselor said.
“Some have been very successful,” Flint said. “They use a Mercedes as a Band-Aid. Some become total workaholics. It’s a denial of trauma.”
But that is not often the case with those who join the groups. “Coming in, most see it as a negative experience,” Flint said. “Later, they see it as a positive.”
Veteran Bob Hood offered, “The further away we get from it, the better we can understand it.”
As the issue of the media and the 10th anniversary was vented, the two counselors guided the discussion back to more relevant matters for the future. Bob Key, who first came to the center as a volunteer because of “some need on my part to offer vets a better crack at life,” gently prodded and soothed, trying not to let the talk degenerate into a bull session.
Written on a sheet of paper at one end of the room were the words “Anger,” “Hurt,” “Frustration” and “Fear,” all of which surfaced in the course of this evening.
Dennis Fondren recounted how he burned his uniform out of frustration when he returned from Vietnam because of the coldness of the reception he got. He told the other vets that as a result of sessions with them, his improved outlook became noticeable, even at home.
“Last weekend my mother said, ‘You’re alive, you’re not a ghost.’ She finally realized that I’m home,” he said.
But Nick Saragoza, an American Indian and the only nonwhite in the group, said, “I feel like a man without a country.”
The counselors tried to direct the discussion toward what the vets can do for themselves, for their futures.
When one vet talked about how exasperated he got with a neighbor who refused to mow his lawn, several others suggested that he blow it up. Another suggested he just mow for the neighbor.
In the eight weeks of sessions, they talk a lot about work--how to get jobs and hold them, how to advance--and about relationships and how to keep them together. There is warmth, camaraderie and bluff as the difficult work gets done.
“Now we’re a family again,” Fondren said of the group.
But the outreach center, which operates under the Veterans Administration on an annual budget of $175,000 and is one of five in Southern California, is scheduled to close for good at the end of 1988, when congressional financing runs out and responsibility for the vets returns to the VA.
Effects on Children
When asked, the vets will talk about their children, about how the war has affected that relationship.
“I don’t buy guns for my kids,” Dennis Landry said.
Ray Reinders said his son “wants nothing to do with the military,” and that he does nothing to dissuade the boy.
To a man, none of those with sons wanted them to learn first-hand the horrors of combat.
“I’ll do it again before they have to go,” Landry said.
Vietnam veterans living in Orange County appear to labor under a special burden, in addition to those shared with vets around the country, because of the 65,000 Vietnamese refugees who have settled locally.
“The Vietnamese issue is one that seems to exist under the surface,” Flint said. Vets “see Vietnamese in Orange County as a reminder--I don’t even think it’s conscious. It’s easy to project all of the anger and bitterness.”
Fondren said there was “too much sympathy for the Vietnamese,” and others complained of preferential treatment and special programs that they said the government provides to the refugees.
“There’s a perception of privilege,” said Ferrier, which makes the Vietnamese “a focus of animosity which does not hold up to rational thought.”
Reinders said he had “no problems with immigrants, if they come over here to work hard.” But Bob Hood characterized the ubiquitous presence of Vietnamese “a very scary thing.”
What is it that Vietnam veterans want from their wartime experience?
“Somehow they need to be validated,” Flint said. “If not accepted, then understood.”
But, Landry said, “You never forget.”