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March/April 2022 -   -  

Speak Out: Am I a Real Vietnam Veteran?

Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I a real Vietnam vet?” I certainly have, and I’ve struggled with the answer ever since I returned home from my 1971 Vietnam tour of duty.

That seems an odd statement. Of course, I am a Vietnam veteran if I served in Vietnam. Right? Yeah, I was there, but the question is: “Am I a real Vietnam veteran?”

I don’t think there is any doubt that receiving military orders to report to Vietnam was traumatic for everyone, no matter what year it was. The big unknowns were: Is it going to be bad or really bad? Will I ever come home again? Will I live or die?

There was no way around those thoughts. Those psychological contemplations and fears were real for all of us who faced those realities from day one, regardless of when we served or what our assignments were.

When I think about all of the stories I have read and the movies I have seen, “real” vets had a much different experience than I had. I didn’t get shot; I didn’t get wounded. Other than a battle with the delirious fevers of malaria, I came home unscathed—physically. So why wasn’t I a happy camper? What more could I have asked for? Why did I feel so guilty? Why did I have nightmares? And why do I question whether I am a real vet? None of it makes sense to me.

For many years after I came home, like many Vietnam vets, I never talked to anyone about my Army service and chose not to seek out other veterans. I kept to myself for the most part.

Then, unexpectedly, I had an opportunity to speak with a fellow vet who was a bit older than I was, and he asked what year I served. When I replied, “1971,” he laughed and said, “Oh, that doesn’t really count; we had the war mostly all wrapped up by then.” I’m sure his intent wasn’t malicious, but, man, those words stung! And that, coming from another veteran, strongly reinforced my doubts. I thought, “Nope, I’m not a real vet.”

The most devastating years of the war, as far as the number of casualties, were 1967-69. That is when two-thirds of all of the war’s 58,318 American deaths occurred. Those were the years that most Vietnam War books and movies have focused on.

The guys who took part in the heavy combat during those years are real vets, for sure. They have absolutely and unequivocally earned and certainly deserve the highest respect and recognition from all of us.

But what about before 1967 and after 1969? Do those years count? Should “real” war veterans be defined only as those who have been in combat that resulted in heavy casualties?

The casualties in my infantry battalion were comparatively minimal during 1971 as the war was winding down. I was never hit and none of my buddies got killed. I know some who were killed while I was there, but I didn’t see it happen. So maybe that doesn’t count. 

None of what I saw or participated in would be called heavy combat. I was in the infantry and pinned down by enemy snipers in the jungle one time, was caught in a roadside ambush while on a convoy, and experienced the intense fear of artillery landing so close that I could hear shrapnel cutting the tree branches above and around me. But those were isolated incidents. I have never been in a real battle. Real battles have names. Right?

But the reality is that any battle you take part in is a big one no matter how small it was, because it doesn’t take a large enemy force or a big battle to kill you. It only takes one man with one gun to shoot you one time.

The Army thought I was a real war veteran. I was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, along with some other medals that I put away in a drawer after returning home and kept hidden for forty years. Even though I didn’t get them out until I became a grandfather, it seems like that should count.

And the VA also thinks that I am a real vet. As it turned out, I didn’t return home unscathed. The wounds just took a while to be diagnosed. Aside from having had malaria, I was diagnosed by VA doctors as having service-connected PTSD and service-connected cancer which the VA attributes to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. I’d bet that most of us didn’t come home unscathed. If the VA classifies someone as a disabled veteran, why wouldn’t that count?

At some point, many many years later, I volunteered to be a driver for DAV, transporting veterans to and from their medical appointments at the VA hospital. That was the first time I had any serious interaction with other veterans. I discovered something that I never gave much thought to before: Tons of veterans served in Vietnam without seeing combat. 

The fact is, only a small percentage of those who served were in the infantry. The vast majority of the troops served in support roles in Vietnam. However, the war engulfed the entire country of South Vietnam and there were no front or rear lines. As a result, everyone lived with the possibility that they could get hit at any time, no matter where they served, what branch of the military they served in, or what year it was.

Any base, large or small, could be hit by sapper attacks or incoming mortar rounds at any time. Still, those who served there bravely reported for duty regardless of the dangers. Does that count? I think it does.

It has been more than ten years since I wrote this preface to my book Rucksack Grunt:

“You can engage in a conversation with a thousand different Vietnam veterans and get a thousand different stories about their war experiences. Some guys had it bad; some guys had it not so bad. It all depends on what part of the country they were in, what year they served, and what their MOS and duty assignments were. They all served.”

So, to all of my fellow Vietnam veterans, if you can relate to this story in some way or if you were ever unsure or doubted your veteran status as I frequently have: Yes, we all served. Yes, it all counts.

Welcome home and may God’s grace be with you all.

Bob Kuhn served in Vietnam with B Company of 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment. His website is https://rucksackgrunt.com He is a VVA life member.




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