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A Vietnam veteran is someone who served in the armed forces of participating countries during the Vietnam War.
The term has been used to describe veterans who were in the armed forces of South Vietnam, the United States armed forces, and countries allied to them, whether or not they were actually stationed in Vietnam during their service. However, the more common usage distinguishes between those who served "in country" and those who did not actually serve in Vietnam by referring to the "in country" veterans as "Vietnam veterans" and the others as "Vietnam-era veterans". The U.S. government officially refers to all as "Vietnam-era veterans".
In the English-speaking world, the term "Vietnam veteran" is not usually used in relation to members of the communist People's Army of Vietnam or the National Liberation Front.
Although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, it is safe to say that several million people served in the South Vietnamese armed forces, the vast majority of them in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)—between 1956 and 1975. It is known that during 1969–1971, there were about 22,000 ARVN combat deaths per year and the army reached a peak strength of about one million soldiers during 1972. The official number of anti-communist Vietnamese personnel killed in action was 220,357.
Following the communist victory on April 30, 1975, South Vietnamese veterans were rounded up and sent to reeducation camps, essentially forced labor camps in desolate areas. They were detained without trial for up to decades at a time. After being released, they and their children faced significant discrimination from the communist government. A significant proportion of the surviving South Vietnamese veterans left Vietnam for Western countries, either as boat people or through the Humanitarian Operation (HO).
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA) states, "A Vietnam era veteran is a person who
The U.S. Census Bureau (2004) reports there are 8.2 million "Vietnam Era Veterans". Of these 2.59 million are reported to have served "in country".
More than 58,000 US personnel died as a result of the conflict. This comprises deaths from all categories including deaths while missing, captured, non-hostile deaths, homicides, and suicides. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes veterans that served in the country then known as the Republic of Vietnam from February 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975, as being eligible for such programs as the department's Readjustment Counseling Services program (aka Vet Centers). The Vietnam War was the last American war with conscription.
Nationals of other nations fought in the American-led anti-communist coalition, usually as armed forces of allied nations, such as Australia and South Korea, but sometimes as members of the US armed forces.
Australia deployed approximately three battalions of infantry, one regiment of Centurion tanks, and three RAAF Squadrons (2SQN Canberra Bombers, 9SQN Iroquois Helicopters and 35 SQN Caribou Transports). Approximately 49,000 Australian military personnel served in Vietnam. According to official statistics, 501 personnel died or went missing in action during the Vietnam war and 2400 were wounded. The Australian veterans were very much rejected by the people and the government after returning and did not receive a welcome home parade until 1987, 15 years after the last soldier and national servicemen left Vietnam. The parade was held on October 3. The government did not admit that defoliants such as Agent Orange had disastrous health effects on the veterans until 1992, when they finally accepted research that proved there were links between Agent Orange and health problems suffered by the veterans.
During the Vietnam era, more than 30,000 Canadians served in the US armed forces; 110 Canadians died in Vietnam and seven are listed as missing in action. Fred Graffen, military historian with the Canadian War Museum, estimated in Vietnam Magazine (Perspectives) that approximately 12,000 of these personnel actually served in Vietnam. Most of these were natives of Canada who lived in the United States. The military of Canada did not officially participate in the war effort, as it was appointed to the UN truce commissions and thus had to remain officially neutral in the conflict.
Initially, in May 1965, New Zealand provided one 4 gun artillery battery (140 men) with two rifle companies of infantry, designated Victor and Whiskey companies, and an SAS troop arriving later. The New Zealanders operated in Military Region 3 with the Australian forces as part of the ANZAC task force (brigade) based in Nui Dat in Phuoc Thuy Province, North East of Saigon. At the height of New Zealand involvement in 1968, the force was 580 men. New Zealand's total contribution numbered approximately 4,000 personnel. 37 were killed and 187 were wounded. As of 2010, no memorial has been erected to remember these casualties.
Throughout the Vietnam War, the Republic of Korea sent slightly over 300,000 servicemen to Vietnam. At the peak of their commitment, the ROK maintained a force of approximately 48,000 men in the country.
There are persistent stereotypes about Vietnam veterans as psychologically devastated, bitter, homeless, drug-addicted people who had a hard time readjusting to society, primarily due to the uniquely divisive nature of the Vietnam War in the context of U.S. History.
That social division has expressed itself by the lack both of public and institutional support for the former servicemen expected by returning combatants of most conflicts in most nations. In a material sense also, veterans' benefits for Vietnam era veterans were dramatically less than those enjoyed after World War II. The Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974, as amended, 38 U.S.C. § 4212, was meant to try and help the veterans overcome this.
In 1979, Public Law 96-22 established the first Vet Centers, after a decade of effort by combat vets and others who realized the Vietnam veterans in America and elsewhere (including Australia) were facing specific kinds of readjustment problems. Those problems would later become identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the early days, most Vet Center staffers were Vietnam veterans themselves, many of them combat veterans.
Some representatives of organizations like the Disabled American Veterans started advocating for the combat veterans to receive benefits for their war related psychological trauma. Some U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital personnel also encouraged the veterans working at the Vet Centers to research and expand treatment options for veterans suffering the particular symptoms of this newly recognized syndrome.
This was a controversial time, but eventually, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opened Vet Centers nationwide. These centers helped develop many of the debriefing techniques used nowadays with traumatized populations from all walks of life.
The Vietnam veterans who started working in the early Vet Centers eventually began to reach out and serve World War II and Korean vets as well, many of whom had suppressed their own traumas or self-medicated for years.
Veterans, particularly in Southern California, were responsible for many of those early lobbying and subsequent Vet Center treatment programs. These men founded one of the first local organizations by and for Vietnam veterans in 1981 (now known as Veterans Village).
Vets were also largely responsible for taking debriefing and treatment strategies into the larger community where they were adapted for use in conjunction with populations impacted by violent crime, abuse, manmade and natural disasters, and those in law enforcement and emergency response.
Other notable organizations that were founded during this period included the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the National Organization for Victim Assistance. These organizations continue to study and/or certify post-traumatic stress disorder responders and clinicians.
There are still, however, many proven cases of individuals who have suffered psychological damage from their time in Vietnam. Many others were physically wounded, some permanently disabled. However, advocates of this point of view ignore the many successful and well-adjusted Vietnam veterans who have played important roles in America since the end of the Vietnam War such as Al Gore, Fred Smith (founder and president of Federal Express), Colin Powell, John McCain, Craig Venter (famed for being the first to map the human genome), and many others. In order to find closure, thousands of former American soldiers have visited and some have made a decision to move permanently to Vietnam to confront the psychological and physical remnants of the Vietnam War. They participate in the removal of unexploded mines and bombs, help people affected by Agent Orange, teach English to the Vietnamese and conduct Vietnam War battlefield tours for tourists.
The Vietnam veteran has been depicted in fiction and film of variable quality. A major theme is the difficulties of soldiers readjusting from combat to civilian life. This theme had occasionally been explored in the context of World War Two in such films as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950). However, films featuring Vietnam veterans constitute a much larger genre.
The first appearance of a Vietnam veteran in film seems to be The Born Losers (1967) featuring Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack. Bleaker in tone are such films as Hi, Mom! (1970) in which vet Robert De Niro films pornographic home movies before deciding to become an urban guerrilla, The Strangers in 7A where a team of former paratroopers blow up a bank and threaten to blow up a residential apartment building, The Hard Ride (1971) and Welcome Home Soldier Boys (1972) in which returning vets are met with incomprehension and violence.
In many films, like Gordon's War (1973) and Rolling Thunder (1977), the veteran uses his combat skills developed in Vietnam to wage war on evil-doers in America. This is also the theme of Taxi Driver (1976) in which Robert De Niro plays Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle who wages a one man war against society whilst he makes plans to assassinate a presidential candidate. Apparently this film inspired John W. Hinckley to make a similar attempt against President Ronald Reagan. In a similar vein is First Blood (1982) which features John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone in an iconic role), as a Vietnam vet who comes into conflict with a small town police department.
Such films as Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol (1972) and The Ninth Configuration (1979) were innovative in depicting veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, before this syndrome became widely known. In Born on the Fourth of July (1989) Tom Cruise portrays disenchanted Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic who, wounded in action and wheel-chair bound, leads rallies against the war. A more recent example is Bruce Dern's portrayal of a down-and-out veteran in the film Monster (2003).
In television, service in Vietnam was part of the backstory of many characters in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in police or detective roles. For some, their military history was rarely referred to, such as MacGyver, Rick Simon of Simon & Simon, or Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice. To a degree, writing in a Vietnam background can be attributed simply to logical chronology, but also served to give these characters more depth, and explain their skills, e.g. MacGyver having served in a bomb disposal unit.
Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I., Stringfellow Hawke of Airwolf, and the characters of The A-Team were characters whose experiences in Vietnam were more frequently worked into plotlines. They were part of an early 1980s tendency to rehabilitate the image of the Vietnam vet in the public eye. While they carry emotional scars from their war experiences, they are proud of their service, and are shown fighting on the side of right and justice.
The documentary In the Shadow of the Blade (released 2004) reunited Vietnam veterans and families of war dead with a restored UH-1 "Huey" helicopter in a cross-country journey to tell the stories of Americans affected by the war.
An example in print is Marvel Comics' the Punisher, also known as Frank Castle. Castle learned all of his combat techniques from his time as a Marine as well as from his three tours of combat during Vietnam. It is also where he acquired his urge to punish the guilty, which goes on to be a defining trait in Castles' character.
One of the Survivors in the first Left 4 dead game is a Vietnam Veteran who often compares living in a zombie apocalypse to Vietnam.
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