To Hell . . . and Back : Not everyone who fought in Vietnam came home shattered. Millions returned intact in mind and body, and used the worst of combat to find the best of life.
Let it be accepted that half a million American men and women returned from Vietnam with damaged minds and demolished lives.
Let it also be known that 3 million Americans came home intact and functioning; quietly back to jobs and cities and marriages and a country revered before they were so rudely interrupted.
This huge and generally silent majority sucked lessons from their 365-day tours in Southeast Asia. Many used the worst of combat to find new priorities among the simpler, easier things of peace. All feel that although their military time was a violent, evil education that no American should face again, they are sounder persons for the experience.
Some used their wars to build new or continued careers.
As did Fred Smith, a former Marine Corps infantry officer, pilot and forward air controller. Contrary to the beliefs of corporate America, Smith did not adopt the military’s “hub and spoke” system of air delivery and reforge it into Federal Express.
“It’s a good story, but a myth,” says Smith, 49, chairman of Memphis-based FedEx. “What I did learn in Vietnam is the military is a real crucible of people from different places and different backgrounds all coming together.
“And that people who run companies don’t know how the average Joe looks at things, what his ambitions and concerns are. But when you’re in the bush with kids you get a pretty good idea of that . . . what makes them loyal or disloyal, what motivates them into performing well.”
Managers with that understanding, Smith says, are the rule at Federal Express, which last year earned $10 billion.
In 1971, a young Harvard graduate enlisted in the Army and spent four months in Vietnam as a military journalist. When he became vice president of the United States, many regarded Al Gore’s military record as an important counterbalance to President Clinton’s youth as a war protester.
John McCain and Bob Kerrey certainly didn’t serve in Vietnam for political gain. But McCain’s six years in a POW camp and Kerrey’s Medal of Honor didn’t pass unnoticed when the veterans campaigned and won seats in the U.S. Senate.
If Oliver Stone hadn’t experienced Vietnam, he would never have directed a trilogy of watershed war movies, including his Oscar-rich “Platoon.” Nor would journalist Bill Broyles have developed “China Beach” for television.
And Peter Arnett, then with Associated Press, now with CNN, would never have earned the spurs--to say nothing of a Pulitzer Prize--that have made him America’s best-known war correspondent since Ernie Pyle.
Emmy winner Dennis Franz of “NYPD Blue” is a Vietnam veteran. So is actor Kevin Dobson. Also Dan Lauria who played the father in those “Wonder Years.”
Lauria was a Marine Corps lieutenant aboard a helicopter assault vessel in the South China Sea. Then a platoon commander at An Loc near the Cambodian border.
He survived intact, he says, but not unstained.
Lauria says he and friend Franz carry mild double doses of survivor guilt because, Lauria explains, “We not only survived a war where so many were killed, we came home and became successes.”
Yet it was having a career, believing he could succeed as an actor, that sustained him in Vietnam.
“I always knew what I wanted to do, to act, and the love of that, the drive to succeed kept me going,” he says. “Also, I was a volunteer. If things got bad, I could always look in a mirror and say I asked for it.”
Although Lauria and several million Vietnam veterans are far from dysfunctional and have never suffered flashbacks or alcoholic rages, all who served have inner echoes that are the legacy of any vivid experience.
Shad Meshad of Los Angeles is the nation’s most voluble Vietnam returnee. He served in Vietnam as a mental health officer working from rear-area hospitals to isolated firebases. He returned in 1970 to found the National Veterans Center counseling facility, and then the National Veterans Foundation.
Meshad, 50, brought many things back from the war: a fearless, more focused approach to life. Also an inspiration for postwar writings and his counseling networks. But no nightmares, no drugs, no psychoses.
Yet, after recent storms, he and another veteran, Newhall restaurant owner Bobby Franco, were out jogging. There were flooded lagoons. There were smells.
“There was this odor of festering water, a Vietnam odor,” Meshad says. “I began running at full speed to get out of there. Ran as hard as I could with Franco following.
“Then we slowed down, stopped, realized what had happened and just started laughing.”
Franco saw and felt much in Vietnam. An infantry company commander, his tour was spent in the jungle: 28 days in, three days out. With five Bronze Stars for valor.
“But I’ve never had one bad dream about Vietnam,” he says. “I came back with my arms and legs, got all my guys back but for two, and that’s when you just look up and say: Thank you, God.”
Franco was a partner in Alfie’s on Sunset Boulevard, built Mirabelle in 1976 and now owns the Pasta Grill in Newhall. The war, he says, “is history . . . like a bad marriage, you put it behind you and move on with life.”
But on occasions, just sometimes, he wonders what a nice boy from Brooklyn was doing in Vietnam. “Maybe it was my purpose,” he suggests. “Maybe I was chosen to go over there and get those guys back.”
Diane Carlson Evans was an Army nurse. She served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 at places where the supply of incoming wounded was endless, and only a barbed-wire fence separated her from the hot war.
Evans’ homecoming was perfect.
There was a supportive family in Northfield, Minn., nursing to continue, then a husband and eventually four children.
Sure, she felt some anger, some depression. But never enough “to make me jump off a bridge someday.”
And she exorcised these dark whispers by total involvement in a movement to recognize the service of 7,000 nurses in Vietnam. Satisfaction, and her private healing, peaked two years ago when the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was raised in Washington, D.C.
“The war certainly changed my life, but made me a better person in many ways,” says Evans, 48. “I left a Minnesota farm, went to Southeast Asia, and learned worldliness and a sense of compassion that otherwise I might never have had.
“There were friendships and the adventure of women in the military. It opened my eyes to government and truth and fair play. It made me stronger. Now, when things get rough, I figure if I can do what I did in Vietnam and survive, I can handle anything.”
Spec. 4 Oliver Stone was a troubled man when he returned from Vietnam in 1968 with one Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts from service with the 25th Infantry Division. But his anger and alienation, his troubles with marijuana and LSD, had nothing to do with combat and death.
“I was troubled going in, adolescent troubles,” says Stone, son of a privileged New York family that collapsed from divorce and debt while he was in prep school. “Vietnam wasn’t a two-year bump in my life. Vietnam was a continuation.”
In the end, after his troubles, after the catharsis from making Vietnam movies, Stone has the war in focus.
If nothing else, it taught him that life is not a clean division between war and peace. There is no line, and all life is a struggle to exist.
“Vietnam was a very clear demarcation, a clarification of the evil that lives inside us,” he says. “It brought me in touch with violence and taught me an aversion to violence. It clarified the nature of life and the beast in man.”
Stone also believes that being in Vietnam, intersecting with this key event in American history, decided his own currents “for being part of the times I’m in, the passion of the times . . . and that adds resonance to our work.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder has a dozen faces, a hundred causes, but one simple origin: shock.
The shock of killing. The shock of walking with a friend who dies in mid-sentence. The shock of noise, fear, atrocity, disease, panji stakes, guilt, shame, Bouncing Betty mines, dead children and being ostracized by America.
Or, says the Rev. Bill Mahedy, an Army chaplain in San Diego, the shock of religious and moral conflict. “How do you ease the confusion of a kid from the Midwest, a former altar boy, who is told it’s not OK to go to bed with prostitutes, but it’s OK to go around and kill Vietnamese all day?”
Among Union Army soldiers in 1863, PTSD was diagnosed “nostalgia” from the vacant look of confused, scared, emotionally broken young Americans ordered to kill other young Americans.
It was “shellshock” in World War I and “combat fatigue” in World War II.
Now specialists say that if the Vietnam War achieved nothing else, it did create the recognition, measurement and treatment of PTSD as a valid mental disorder.
Yet they have written no guides to why some broke and others didn’t. Or why a rear-area clerk collapsed after being in-country three weeks when a 100-kill sniper came home intact.
Dr. Mark Zetin, a Garden Grove psychiatrist who has worked in VA hospitals, says it is mostly a matter of individual coping mechanisms.
A soldier with good intellectual skills is less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. A person with a solid support system--a faithful spouse, strong family, good friends and a church--is better equipped to survive. And a deep religious faith carries the comfort of believing there is some grand purpose.
“Some people have these things as a gift, or something learned from childhood,” Zetin says. “Some don’t.”
And some don’t recognize their assets.
Growing up, Mike Sims’ example was his father, a career Navy pilot. Yet Dad’s stiff regimen didn’t hold much appeal for young Sims, who dropped out of college for easier studies in the pro shop at Yorba Linda Country Club.
Then Sims was drafted, sent to Vietnam in 1967 and served as a machine gunner with the 11th Armored Cavalry.
“Remember, I’d grown up with the discipline of a Navy brat,” he says. “I’d bolted against it at the time, but in Vietnam it really didn’t seem such a bad quality to have.
“I quickly realized that discipline and focus were really important if you wanted to live. When it was over, I came home, went straight to school, got a degree, married, had two kids and got a life.”
In thanks, he gave back by working in nonprofit management with the Hollywood and Beverly Hills chambers of commerce. Now he’s a senior vice president of marketing for Imperial Bank.
Mahedy was a Roman Catholic chaplain. He came home, married a former nun and was re-ordained an Episcopal priest. Faith kept him functioning during and after the war.
“Here’s the peculiar thing about it,” he says. “No matter how bad the experience, I don’t know one Vietnam vet who regrets the experience. They lived on the edge, they molded their manhood . . . they gained education, insights into life, and being a part of war, the greatest of all human adventures, is too great to trade in.”
Mahedy said Vietnam made him understand evil, grace and redemption. It taught him to be a survivor. Now nothing scares him because “I’ve played the most macho game in town and come out of it.”
Motivation, agree veterans and their counselors, was integral to remaining mentally intact during and after Vietnam.
“The desire to come back, and having something to come back to,” Meshad explains. “A job. Their culture. Continuing an education. Some people knew they wanted to be a doctor, wanted to be a lawyer, and that after Vietnam there would be nothing to stop them. So they came home and hit the ground running.”
Correspondent Arnett admits that ambition was his motivation and that Vietnam punched his career ticket. As it did for other correspondents.
“We were volunteers, we saw it as a developing news story, and we got our kicks from it,” he says. “Compare that to the 18-year-old draftee who was dragged to Vietnam, didn’t know what it was about, saw no reward in being there, and people he couldn’t see were trying to kill him.”
Then, Meshad says, any war has troops with all the right stuff, the gunfighters, the men who must climb every mountain.
“These people get every drop out of life, have to get right next to that edge and ride it,” he says. “They fed off Vietnam and loved it. Now they are trying to recover that life-or-death edge . . . making money, taking any risk in business wars, in relationships, at jobs where the odds are 90% against you making it. But they do make it.
“They’re saying: ‘Put me back in the jungle. Drop me off in the middle of nowhere in life and I’m coming out of it.’ And they do.”
Stewart Resmer walks a quieter trail.
He came from a blue-collar family with a hereditary work ethic. Military service was an honorable contribution. So believed 17-year-old Resmer in 1968 when he volunteered for the Marines.
He went to Vietnam as a corporal working fire-direction control with a company of self-propelled guns. Life at a firebase wasn’t as remote from the war as it might sound.
“I had terrible fears of a friendly fire accident,” Resmer recalls. “Our shells had a 30- or 40-second time of flight, so you’d sit there with the responsibility of that thing going through the air . . . praying that the next voice you’d hear on the radio was somebody congratulating your accuracy.”
Close friends died. Another lost a leg. Resmer had a little belligerence and some dark dreams when he came home.
But that was quickly over, erased, in part, when he agreed to help veterans’ causes and was chosen to escort the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to Washington. He says he mentally survived the war by knowing “who I am and what I’m about, and always being solid in my motivation as to what I do and what I stand for.”
“Mom and apple pie and the American Way worked for me,” he says.
Now he runs Stewart’s Towing, out of Venice.
Resmer also works as a film extra for $40 a day and a free lunch.
His biggest role was in “For the Boys” with Bette Midler.
He got to sit on a gun and play a fire-direction controller at a firebase in Vietnam.