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He’s got a booze bottle in one hand, with a Marine-issue K-Bar knife in a sheath taped to his leg. He can’t hold a job. He awakens from nightmares virtually every night and when a car backfires or a garage door slams, he "hits the deck." He’s the dysfunctional Vietnam vet of Hollywood lore and media myth.
Yet it’s a myth that some people refuse to let go. And so we were informed on Veterans Day of a new poll showing that fully one-third of all the men in homeless shelters are vets. The figure far exceeds the percentage of veterans in the overall population or of male veterans among all American males.
"The scars of Vietnam still are not fully healed for many veterans," said the Rev. Stephen E. Burger, executive director of the International Union of Gospel Missions. "Large numbers of Vietnam veterans, unable to cope with the post-traumatic stress of their wartime service, continue to come through our doors."
Ah, so sad. So poignant. So untrue.
The problem is that veteran status in the poll was determined simply by asking the men. Anybody who’s ever lived in any big city (or Santa Monica), knows that the favorite ploy of panhandlers is to claim they’re Viet vets. You see guys who must have been ten years old when Saigon fell claiming to have given their all in the rice paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia.
It’s so common a gambit that it became a gag in the Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places. Murphy is a bum wearing an Army jacket who pretends to have lost both his legs and his eyesight in order to elicit that extra bit of sympathy — and perhaps an extra quarter or two.
The Census Bureau, which unlike the International Union of Gospel missions is not an advocacy group, puts the number of homeless vets at about 7 percent of all the homeless — about one-fifth of the International Union number.
Why are we to believe so many homeless are vets? International Union spokesman Phil Rydman blames "the trauma of coming back from war, plus the addictions and substance abuse that these fellows have."
While there clearly are some vets with these problems, a 1994 University of California at Irvine (UCI) study concluded that "on the whole, the majority of [Vietnam vets surveyed] are doing well in their communities."
Authored by Dr. Roxanne Silver, it found that found that 70 percent were currently married and over 80 percent had children. More than 80 percent had high school degrees or the equivalent, and over a fifth had completed four years of college. Another fifth had gotten an advanced degree. The vets earned from as little as nothing to as much as $900,000, with a median family income of $42,000. That’s a hair higher than the then-national median family income of $41,000.
As one would expect, the ones who saw combat have, as the UCI report put it, "higher levels of anger, hostility and violent behavior." Indeed, Silver even noticed that men who said they were exposed to the most intense combat were one and one-half times more likely as those exposed to low combat to press hard on their pens when completing their questionnaires.
Yet no more than 20 percent of the troops we sent over to Vietnam were actually out in base camps or "humping the boonies" (setting ambushes, etc.) and chasing "ghosts" (Viet Cong).
This doesn’t mean the other 80 percent didn’t do an important duty, nor that they didn’t also catch hell from people like Mrs. Ted Turner (a.k.a. "Hanoi Jane") when they returned to the States. Indeed, the UCI study found that half of the vets felt they had a "negative homecoming," though that could mean anything from finding their girlfriend had left them to being spat upon by war protestors.
But it is fair to say that the vast majority of Viet vets didn’t suffer the trauma that comes with being shot at or killing people, the kind most likely to lead to severe mental problems. Further, while there certainly are traumatized vets walking the streets, there’s no reason to think that Vietnam produced any more than such "good wars" as World War II.
I’ll grant that information like this doesn’t make for good movie scenes. You know, like in The Deer Hunter, where the Viet Cong force POW Jon Voight to play Russian roulette for their amusement and after he escapes he finds he’s addicted to the game — with the inevitable consequences.
Nobody’s going to make a movie in which a Viet vet walks into a bank and yells, "Okay, it’s payback time!" then whips out a checkbook and pays back the loan he used to start a successful business.
Hollywood is going to do what it’s going to. But we in the real world have a responsibility to ensure that the men and women who served us in our hour of need get the respect and dignity they deserve.