Vietnam Vet Sees Changing Receptions to Service

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Commentator Ed Palm, a veteran of the Vietnam War, says that for many years, Vietnam veterans were sent the message that they should not talk about their experiences. But that has changed. He says that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, all service members are lionized as heroes, regardless of whether they did anything heroic.

Mr. ED PALM: Here's one of the veteran jokes of my generation. How many Vietnam veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb? You wouldn't know man, you weren't there.


Commentator Ed Palm.

Mr. ED PALM (Major, U.S.M.C., retired): I can get away with that joke because I was there and I think demonstrating the ability to laugh at myself helps rebut the popular stereo type of Vietnam veterans as post traumatically stressed and deeply disturbed. Not just over our experiences in country, but also over the way we were supposedly treated when we came home. It's true that we didn't get victory parades or pats on the back, but contrary to popular belief, the great majority of us were not spat upon or otherwise vilified. The unspoken message for most of my adult life has been, it's okay to be a Vietnam veteran, so long as you don't dwell on it or refer back to it. Most of us got the message. But what a difference an attack on America makes. Suddenly everyone serving in the military is a hero, regardless of what he or she actually does or has achieved. It's not that I begrudge today's service men and women the recognition we never got, but if they're all heroes, what do we call those whose actually do go above and beyond the call of duty under hostile fire. Superheroes? But don't blame the troops. They're being pushed out in front in a public relations campaign. To question the wisdom of this war is to demoralize the troops, or so we're told. Judging from the current polls, that strategy may no longer be working. But the thing is, undeserved adulation can have a terribly corrosive effect. The Iwo Jima flag rising stands as a case in point. As recounted in James Bradley's book, Flags of Our Father's, the marines who raised the flag felt like frauds at having been singled out and celebrated above all the men who committed legitimate acts of heroism on Iwo. As for me - several people, over the past few years, have thanked me for my Vietnam service and offered me a belated welcome home. At the risk of seeming ungracious, I wish people wouldn't do that. It feels somehow invasive and presumptuous. The presumption being that I share the currently popular view, that my country let me down. I don't feel that way at all. I'm glad I went to Vietnam, but my reasons for feeling that way are personal and complicated. I'd rather not get into all that with people I don't know. And I suspect that many an Iraqi war veterans feels the same way.

BLOCK: Ed Palm is a retired U.S. Marine Major and the Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington.

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