Bobby Muller is still around - and still fighting - but the cautious optimism contained within the piece from 1979 was sadly misplaced.
America's angry heroes
On 29 April 1969, Bobby Muller led a battalion of South Vietnamese soldiers up a hill defended by a suicide squad left behind by the Vietcong. When the South Vietnamese came under fire, they ran, as they always did. Bobby was blown four feet up in the air. A bullet through his chest severed the spinal cord on its way out.
Ten years later, Bobby leans forward in his wheelchair to speak into the microphone. "The majority of people consider the Vietnamese veteran to be a sucker for having served. Veterans returned from the war and never discussed it. The idea went that GIs were crazed psychopaths, drug addicts, or whatever. So if you're socially polite, you don't bring up Vietnam."
This is the Sherry Henry Show on New York's WOR Radio, going out live. Bobby Muller, the main spokesman for the Vietnam veterans, is telling Sherry Henry what he has told many TV, radio and newspaper journalists recently. That one quarter of the three million who served in Vietnam suffer from psychological disorders which make it impossible for them to live normally, that one quarter of all married GIs got divorced in the first year they were home and that half of all the disabled veterans are unemployed. Worst of all, psychologists report, the returned soldiers just couldn't talk about Vietnam. How do you explain over a few beers how, and why, you killed people with an M16? Especially when everyone knows the war was a mistake?
President Carter not long ago designated a specific week to be "Veterans Week." At last, people are talking about the war, says Bobby, but he wants to see more action. He lists the Vietnam veterans' demands: an employment assistance programme, additional health care, an extension of the time limit on the GI bill granting veterans a college education.
After Bobby's injury in 1969, he was a prime mover in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement. Before that, he was a high school athlete turned business student who was told future employers would want to see military experience on his curriculum vitae. "I was very gung ho in the career track and, if you'd been in the Marines, especially with combat experience, it's like a brotherhood down in Wall Street."
Bobby went into the Marines in 1967. He was told that infantry was the place to be as an officer, "to be put in a direct management and leadership role." So that's where he went. At first, he had no particular enthusiasm for the cause, but his military training changed all that" "You gotta picture this. You got a big parade deck with these very big impressive drill instructors up front. 'What is the code of the bayonet?' They holler, 'Kill.' 'Who do we kill?' 'Luke the gook.' 'Who do we kill?' 'Link the chink.' It really got you excited. At the end of the whole thing, I was quite an aggressive guy who was eager to go to Vietnam, repel communist invading forces and preserve liberty and freedom and democracy for the people of the south."
The problems for Bobby started when he went into the refugee camps in the northern part of Vietnam. "That was a very confusing period. All the people I had gone over there for, with this vision of being a saviour, looked at me with fear and suspicion. What the hell's going on here?"
Also, the three South Vietnamese battalions that Bobby was adviser to had a poor appetite for the war. And on 29 April 1969, the reluctant South Vietnamese soldiers were Bobby Muller's undoing.
"I had 500 South Vietnamese soldiers. I had ten US Marine tanks and I had a hilltop that I had to take which was being defended by a Vietcong suicide squad. I spent all day with heavy artillery pounding the hill, jet strikes pounding the hill. Every time the South Vietnamese would go up, they'd take sporadic fire and fall back. End of the day I got this colonel. He was saying, 'Take that hill. Take it. Take it." He was really jumping on my case.
"I got the tank commander and said, "Give me three tanks. We'll walk these guys up, walk the Vietnamese up. I led the assault, tried to get the Vietnamese to come up. They split. I caught a bullet."
Because American lives were saved in Vietnam which could have been lost in other wars, it placed a stress on the hospitals which the administration was unable (or unwilling) to deal with. Bobby first got involved in agitating on behalf of the veterans when his hospital was on the cover of Life magazine:
"It was a symbol of the conditions vets had to come home to. There were pictures of rats and overcrowding and filth. At the same time, Nixon was vetoing legislation that provided money for vets, on the grounds that it was fiscally irresponsible and inflationary. I was on all the networked news shows round the country by virtue of saying: 'Look, as an infantry officer in Vietnam, I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars many times over in air strikes and artillery in order to kill people. And now we're talking about a few dollars to provide additional staff in the clinics, some parallel bars, graduated steps, new wheelchairs and not the antiquated stuff that'd been there. C'mon, who are kidding?'"
Bobby Muller is 33, the average age of Vietnam veterans. He came of age, he says, with the words of John Kennedy. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country." And also with the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King (correspondents recorded how his assassination had more impact on GIs out in Vietnam than any other news from home before that), drugs, rock 'n' roll and the sexual revolutions of the sixties. The young Americans who went to Vietnam were not so different from those who didn't. But when the GIs came home they were rejected by their friends.
Bobby, like others in the veterans movement, is not interested in sympathy. In the short term he wants jobs and health care but in the long term he sees the veterans as being a powerful political force. Apart from the three million who served in Vietnam there are another six million who are called "Vietnam era veterans," who were in the army sometime between August 1964 to May 1975. Those nine million, Bobby believes, will be the basis of a political movement which, through Vietnam, will pose questions like: "How has Vietnam affected our foreign policy? Do we have a foreign policy?"
I point out to him that some people believe caring about America to be a dangerous activity, a precursor of the kind of flag-waving which sends armies into foreign territories. I say that I can't take the bit at the end of the Deer Hunter where the group mourning the loss of their friend start singing God Bless America.
"You know what my impression was with that scene?" says Bobby. "And this is one of the reasons I thought it was an OK movie. Here you have real down-and-out poor slobs. Working class hard-life steel town Pennsylvania. It's a rough existence. These people, with the incredible pain of having to bury the kid who went to Vietnam, how are they going to deal with the anguish? Other than to say, I guess that's the price we've got to pay," and here Bobby mimics a Voice of America broadcaster, "to keep America free."
13 December 1979