I SPENT THE FIRST night after coming home from Vietnam in my Army buddy Skip Nelson's house. I slept in Skip's 10-year-old brother's room. The next day, Skip's parents told me that his brother had to get something out of his room while I was sleeping. The boy peeked in the door, saw me sleeping and did the low crawl across the room to his dresser, retrieved his watch or whatever it was, and slowly andsilently crawled out of the room. He was afraid that if he made a noise, it would startle me and I'd wake up suddenly and attack him.
The incident seemed innocent and funny at the time. But looking back on it, I think it symbolizes the reception given to the nation's 2.7 million Vietnam veterans. Our joy upon returning home safely was tempered by how we were treated. Damned by hawks for not winning and by doves just for taking part in the war, the nation's Vietnam vets are uncomfortable reminders of a conflict that caused unprecedented divisiveness in this country. "Clearly, Vietnam veterans were feared, even hated, not as individuals but as symbols of America's embarrasment and dishonor in Southeast Asia," Charles R. Figley and Seymour Leventman write in their introduction to Stangers at Home. "Few americans during or following the war could or would effectively separate the warrior from the war." Strangers at Home is a collection of 18 essays, edited by figley, a Purdue University social psychologist and Marine Vietnam veteran, and Boston Universisty sociologist Leventman. The book is a mixed bag of reports on Vietnam veterans: psychological studies of their readjustment problems, examinations of their drug use and political attitudes and analyses of how they have been treated by government agencies, especially the Veterans Administration.
This is not a book most people will want to curl up with for some light reading. Some of the essays are dull, overwritten and pollluted with academic jargon. But even the stodigiest provide insights into the special problems of Vietnam veterans. And Strangers at Home contains at least three gems: Norma Winkler's examination of the hidden injuries of Vietnam veterans, Charles Mosko's chapter on soldiers in combat and Harvard history professor Frank Freidel's essay on the war and its veterans. All three are clearly and smoothly written and help show how the peculiar nature of the Vietnam war affected those who fought there.
Psychological adjustment is the book's central concern. One overriding theme is that most Vietnam veterans have adjusted well to life back home. But hundreds of thousands of vets, especially combat veterans, are experiencing varying degrees of emotional problems directly related to their war experiences.
Social psychologist John P. Wilson of Michigan State University was among the first to document the wide extent of combat veteran's psychological problems. Wilson spent two years doing in-depth interviews with Vietnam-era veterans. His findings, first released three yeras ago, showed that 25-33 percent of the Vietnam veterans he studied and 40-50 percent of the combat vets he interviewed were struggling with intense psychological problems. Wilson's summary of his work in Strangers at Home is overwritten in some places, but does give a valuable picture of the problelm.
Coeditor Figley, head of the Consortium on Veterans Studies, in 1976 conducted a psychological study similar to Wilson's. The results of Figlely's work closely paralledled Wilson's findings. "The Vietnam combat veteran is neither a walking time bomb nor a invincible robot," Figley writes. "A vast majority ofthe survivors of the war are leading productive lives and are more emotionally stable than the general population. However, the catastrophic stress of combat leaves its mark on the psyche that requires both time and confrontation to erase; and a small but significant minority of combat veterans are suffering from the frightening and debilitating aftershock of Vietnam."
One of the best things about the book is the inclusion of two chapters devoted not to Vietnam veterans, but to the problems of veterans of other American wars. The excerpts from Willard Waller's 1944 book, The Veteran Comes Back , tell what faced soldiers returning from World War I. Dixon Wecter's When Johnny Comes Marching Home , also published in 1944, recounts the readjustment problems of soldiers from the Continental army. In both cases, there were parallels with the experiences of Vietnam veterans. Veterans of the American Revolution, Wecter wrote, "came to be blamed for disaffection and crime, decay of manners and morals...Civilian attitudes blew hot and cold, in a post-war milieu where emotions reached the boiling point more quickly than in other times. The way of the soldier in a civilian world is a mixture of misunderstandings on both sides -- soldierly impatience, civil fickleness, and murky economic problems that are the fault of neither."
Strangers At Home appears at a time when Vietnam veterans are receiving more positive national attention than ever before. The first Vietnam veteran to head the Veterans Administration, Max Cleland, has shown sensitivity to his fellow veterans' problems. Eleven years ago Cleland told a congressional committee that soldiers returning from Vietnam needed special psychological counseling. Last year Congress finally passed a bill setting up special VA centers to provide that counseling. From all accounts, the program seems to be helping those who previously were ignored by traditional VA programs.
President Carter paid tribute to Vietnam veterans at the White House in May 1979, during the first Vietnam Veterans Week. On July 1, 1980, he signed a bill, passed overwhelmingly by Congress, which provides for construction of a Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington. "We are ready at last to acknowledge more deeply and also more publicly the debt which we can never fully pay to those who served," Carter said. Strangers at Home provides evidence that can help Americans understand a good deal about that debt and appreciate more fully the special problems of the veterans of the Vietnam war.