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The 'Viet Vet' Image Keeps Dogging the Reality

June 22, 1986|TIM BENTON | Tim Benton is a writer in Ridgefield, Wash.

Two months ago one of the persistent shadows of the Vietnam War surfaced again in the news, when a combat veteran convicted of two murders in Florida was executed. David L. Funchess had based his defense on a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. His attorney argued that Funchess had been driven to violence by the effects of duty in Vietnam and subsequent treatment for wounds he had suffered, which in turn had led to drug addiction. The courts were not convinced, and Funchess was electrocuted on April 22.

I'm in no position to judge the validity of Funchess' claims, but the news reports' emphasis on his status as a veteran underscored the unfair image that has grown up around all of us who served in Vietnam: If the vet isn't a dope addict or a macho madman, he must at least be a bitter, confused misfit.

The popular media have perpetuated these characterizations. Movie and television producers have opened their arms and their position in the ratings to characters with Vietnam in their past and eye-grabbing flashbacks in their present. It seems as though every criminal portrayed on big screen or small served in Saigon or Danang and returned full of cheap drugs and dangerous emotions.

The fictional "good guys" aren't very different. Take your pick: Magnum P.I., Rick Simon, Rambo. Mention "the Nam" to any one of them and hang on to your boonie hat. Next thing you know, you're on night patrol in the Delta--nothing between you and Charlie but the sweat-streaked mud on your face and the 30,000 rounds of ammo you cleverly managed to squeeze into the 5-inch magazine of your M-16.

These villains and heroes may have different names, but we shouldn't be fooled; they're all cut from the same meager pattern.

At the same time, it's clear that they're not cut from whole cloth. There are people who lived through a brutal and dehumanizing experience in Vietnam, men who returned having lost their friends or their health, their perspective or even their sanity. I won't deny that. There, but for the grace of God--and luck--go I.

All of the veterans of the Vietnam War didn't have the same experience. There were more than 2 million of us there at one time or another, but we went one at a time. Individually. Some willingly, some not, each for his own reasons, each with his own fears and fascinations. When we came back, we came with our own memories and, most important, with our own selves--not with some bargain basement communal psyche concocted of equal parts heroin, acrimony and Kafka nightmare.

Many of us had assignments in Vietnam that were quite mundane and seldom, if ever, dangerous. (No, I'm not complaining.) Even though we were "in-country," the fighting never came closer than the cover of the Time magazine on the PX newsstand.

Col. David Hackworth, a U.S. Army officer with considerable experience in Vietnam, estimated in 1971 that even when U.S. forces there numbered 546,000, "you never had more than 43,000 out in the boonies at one time."

For every tough leatherneck, Special Forces renegade or rogue colonel in a cowboy hat there had to be hundreds of people cooking, drawing maps, keeping accounts, repairing gear. Those jobs can be dangerous in a place like Vietnam, but often they aren't. As I sat at my desk at Camp Eagle near Hue, the war had little more effect on me than it had when I was reading about it at home.

I was lucky. Except for three poorly aimed rockets, I never heard shots fired in anger. I never saw a friend blown away before my eyes. I didn't spend filthy weeks in the boonies fighting fear and loneliness and an enemy I couldn't see. And I never stepped on a land mine as David Funchess did in 1967.

Yes, I was lucky. And many men had it easier than I did. But for others, luck ran out the day their draft number was drawn.

The point is, "the Vietnam experience" has texture to it. It's not possible to wrap it up in a smooth one-dimensional cliche.

The continuing pain of the war and the questions raised by David Funchess' execution will not be resolved without acceptance of this truth: The sharing of the label "Vietnam veteran" does not erase the uniqueness of personal experience. As with the war itself, those who served can't be explained by pat answers and simplistic characterizations.

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