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To Hell . . . and Back : Not everyone who fought in Vietnam came home shattered. Millions returned intact in mind and body, and used the worst of combat to find the best of life.

20 YEARS AFTER THE FALL. U.S. veterans grapple with the repercussions . One in a series

April 27, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let it be accepted that half a million American men and women returned from Vietnam with damaged minds and demolished lives.

Let it also be known that 3 million Americans came home intact and functioning; quietly back to jobs and cities and marriages and a country revered before they were so rudely interrupted.

This huge and generally silent majority sucked lessons from their 365-day tours in Southeast Asia. Many used the worst of combat to find new priorities among the simpler, easier things of peace. All feel that although their military time was a violent, evil education that no American should face again, they are sounder persons for the experience.

Some used their wars to build new or continued careers.

As did Fred Smith, a former Marine Corps infantry officer, pilot and forward air controller. Contrary to the beliefs of corporate America, Smith did not adopt the military's "hub and spoke" system of air delivery and reforge it into Federal Express.

"It's a good story, but a myth," says Smith, 49, chairman of Memphis-based FedEx. "What I did learn in Vietnam is the military is a real crucible of people from different places and different backgrounds all coming together.

"And that people who run companies don't know how the average Joe looks at things, what his ambitions and concerns are. But when you're in the bush with kids you get a pretty good idea of that . . . what makes them loyal or disloyal, what motivates them into performing well."

Managers with that understanding, Smith says, are the rule at Federal Express, which last year earned $10 billion.

In 1971, a young Harvard graduate enlisted in the Army and spent four months in Vietnam as a military journalist. When he became vice president of the United States, many regarded Al Gore's military record as an important counterbalance to President Clinton's youth as a war protester.

John McCain and Bob Kerrey certainly didn't serve in Vietnam for political gain. But McCain's six years in a POW camp and Kerrey's Medal of Honor didn't pass unnoticed when the veterans campaigned and won seats in the U.S. Senate.

If Oliver Stone hadn't experienced Vietnam, he would never have directed a trilogy of watershed war movies, including his Oscar-rich "Platoon." Nor would journalist Bill Broyles have developed "China Beach" for television.

And Peter Arnett, then with Associated Press, now with CNN, would never have earned the spurs--to say nothing of a Pulitzer Prize--that have made him America's best-known war correspondent since Ernie Pyle.

Emmy winner Dennis Franz of "NYPD Blue" is a Vietnam veteran. So is actor Kevin Dobson. Also Dan Lauria who played the father in those "Wonder Years."

Lauria was a Marine Corps lieutenant aboard a helicopter assault vessel in the South China Sea. Then a platoon commander at An Loc near the Cambodian border.

He survived intact, he says, but not unstained.

Lauria says he and friend Franz carry mild double doses of survivor guilt because, Lauria explains, "We not only survived a war where so many were killed, we came home and became successes."

Yet it was having a career, believing he could succeed as an actor, that sustained him in Vietnam.

"I always knew what I wanted to do, to act, and the love of that, the drive to succeed kept me going," he says. "Also, I was a volunteer. If things got bad, I could always look in a mirror and say I asked for it."

Although Lauria and several million Vietnam veterans are far from dysfunctional and have never suffered flashbacks or alcoholic rages, all who served have inner echoes that are the legacy of any vivid experience.

Shad Meshad of Los Angeles is the nation's most voluble Vietnam returnee. He served in Vietnam as a mental health officer working from rear-area hospitals to isolated firebases. He returned in 1970 to found the National Veterans Center counseling facility, and then the National Veterans Foundation.

Meshad, 50, brought many things back from the war: a fearless, more focused approach to life. Also an inspiration for postwar writings and his counseling networks. But no nightmares, no drugs, no psychoses.

Yet, after recent storms, he and another veteran, Newhall restaurant owner Bobby Franco, were out jogging. There were flooded lagoons. There were smells.

"There was this odor of festering water, a Vietnam odor," Meshad says. "I began running at full speed to get out of there. Ran as hard as I could with Franco following.

"Then we slowed down, stopped, realized what had happened and just started laughing."

Franco saw and felt much in Vietnam. An infantry company commander, his tour was spent in the jungle: 28 days in, three days out. With five Bronze Stars for valor.

"But I've never had one bad dream about Vietnam," he says. "I came back with my arms and legs, got all my guys back but for two, and that's when you just look up and say: Thank you, God."

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