Vietnam Veterans' Week has that old familiar patriotic ring. But in fact, the commemorative week - May 28 through June 3 - is different. It is the result of 19 Vietnam veteran members of Congress pushing through a resolution last fall, proclaiming the week. They and an ad hoc group of veterans are trying to make it more than the usual trinkets of press releases and White House receptions.
They want to compel memory of the Vietnam veterans - reminders of a war America has wanted to forget. They want something to be done about the veterans' staggering problems - high rates of unemployment, suicides, broken marriages, pyschological problems, alcohol and drug abuse.
The special week comes at a time when the war at last has filtered down to our pop culture. In an arena where the absolute motive is making a dollar, "Friendly Fire," "Apocalypse Now," "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" would not have been made if those film merchants did not feel a society's readiness to look again at Vietnam - whether through morbid curiosity or out of a sense of needing to deal with it.
For Vietnam veterans the hope is that the country at last will come to grips with their service. They view the war not through a distant mirror; to them it is as immediate as yesterday.
"For years we were the 'baby killers.' I was wounded five times, spent a year in a hospital. There was no counseling. Nothing to bring you down from the 'high' of war. We were beating the drums that no one wanted to hear. You tried to talk about it and people turned away. Most Americans weren't against us, but they weren't for us. They just ignored us. We still can't talk to anyone about the war who wasn't there."
Fred Downs was a 23-year-old lieutenant from an Indiana farm. He arrived in Vietnam in 1967, commanded a platoon, was wounded four times before a land mine blew off his left arm 5 1/2 months later. Downs, assistant director of the New Mexico Veterans Administration regional office, wrote a praised and graphic book about his experiences, "The Killing Zone."
The memories that sear most are of his homecoming. He talks rapidly. "I was wearing my uniform and all my medals. I was very proud of being a soldier. Some business guys in an airport asked, 'Were you the guys throwing kids out of helicopters?' I went home and broke down and started crying. I couldn't believe this psychological hate was directed at me. What about McNamara, who sent us over there? Where is that son of a bitch today? President of the World Bank. McNamara and all those other politicians are getting away scot-free."
Downs is one of the more successful veterans. "The war gave me the drive to go on to college - to write. I have become more sensitive."
There is one day he will never forget: "I was walking across campus in the fall of 1968. A student walking by pointed to the hook sticking out of my left sleeve. He asked, 'Did you get that in Vietnam?' I said yes. He just looked at me and walked away. 'Serves you right,' he said."
'I Tried to Help'
Gene McCarthy, silver-haired now, moves through Duke Zeibert's restaurant. He says he was in New York for a Vietnam veterans' rally. "I tried to help them out."
McCarthy thinks back to 1968 and his peace brigade. They toppled a president, even if they didn't elect McCarthy. "Bob McNamara just got some peace award in Chicago." In Chicago, where the police and the tear gas and the riot clubs beat back the peace demonstrators 11 years ago. The voice takes on a sardonic tinge. "That's a sufficient comment on how far we've come in 10 years."
'I Can't Cry'
Johnny was a demolition expert in Vietnam. He performed the grim ritual of disarming the dead American soldiers who had been booby-trapped. "Some in the squad would get too emotional at what they saw, grab the guy too quick and," Johnny snaps his finger, "he'd be gone. You were trying to disarm 'em so you could send the bodies home.
"War makes you accept violence," says Johnny, now 30, sitting on a bed in his home near Boston. One leg is missing, blown off by a mine. "I couldn't understand a Marine hitting an old woman, knocking her off the dump truck as she scrounged for garbage. A week later I'm doing the same thing. In that time, another old woman ran up to the truck and threw a grenade into the cab, and two marines were killed.He was beating her for our own protection. You had to get to where you did not think of them as people."
A decade later, Johnny says, "I can't cry. I buried my best friend yesterday. I was in the family car with his four kids. After I went out and got stinkin' drunk." Johnny pauses and reflects. "I knew how to cry before. I feel strange. Everyone else was feeling bad. I wish I could. I know I should feel sad - but I forgot how."
Lonnie Sparks is as Middle American as his hometown of Muncie, Ind., where they grow national high school basketball champions. In high school, he recalls, "I always wanted to go work at Chevrolet Muncie." But Sparks was drafted. His brief life as the man he was ended two months after he went to Vietnam.
"I really didn't know what we were doing. I just did what they told me. I was a foot soldier. I just carried an M16 and shot at them what shot at me."
The fear was there always. "We lived mostly in the dirt. Wrote letters by moonlight." One day Sparks stepped on a mine. "I was awake when they put me in the helicopter. I seen one of my legs layin' on the ground."
He lost both legs. He talks quietly, but he flips the top of his cigarette lighter rapidly as he remembers. His wife, Becky, was working at the beauty parlor when her father walked in with their minister. The yellow Western Union telegram, the kind that came to families all over America in 1967, was waiting on the TV set.
Becky Sparks moves to another room and comes back, holding a fistful of telegrams a decade old. "I couldn't take my eyes off this one line, 'traumatice amputation of the leg.'" By the time she saw him in the Denver hospital "Lonnie had done all his mental sorting out and depression." Sparks said he never worried about his wife leaving. "That was up to her."
She says, "I don't understand all these women who leave their husbands who are disabled."
They have two daughters, 9 and 4, and Becky is pregnant. Sparks is gentle with the girls, crawling on the grass with them, lifting them high over his shoulders, pushing the swing, holding their hands when they lean against his wheelchair."He is a playmate. The girls never knew Lonnie any other way. When they asked what happened to him, he just told them he stepped on a huge firecracker," says Becky.
I knew I was going to live," Sparks recalls. "I just tried to make the best of it." There is a fleeting moment of sadness. "I'm still trying to make the best of it.
"Just layin' there in the hospital watching the guys that was in worse shape . . . that stuck with me."
Back in Muncie, "Adults were acting like children, following him up the aisles in stores," says Becky, the first hint of irritation crossing her pretty face."I was always the gal that was married to the guy with no legs. I wasn't 'Lonnie's wife,' like I was before."
Sparks takes pride in his agility. He hangs out with Phil Clark at his gas station ("he's like a father to me"), beats him at double solitaire and sometimes works on the cars. In the early evenings he shoots pool at his favorite bar and in the winter he plays wheelchair basketball for the Indianapolis Mustangs.
Sparks is 100 percent disabled and gets $1,250 a month from the government. He also gets a clothing allowance, and his home was partly paid for.
"I don't mean to sound greedy, but we could use more. I wear out my clothes fast crawlin' on the ground, lifting myself in and out of the chair." But Sparks says, "There's so many guys here that can't find work. I can't see myself taking a job from one of them that really has to make a living."
Neither Becky or Lonnie shows any bitterness about the way the war was run. "I just thought it was all these chiefs and all these Indians," says Sparks.
His wife says quietly, "We have to keep thinking this was done for a good cause. If he ever thought it wasn't it would destroy Lonnie."
The Sparkses finally show a special anger, one voiced by many veterans: that this was a blue-collar war, fought by "the suckers who were dumb enough to go while you have college guys just sayin' 'well, I think I'll just sign up for another year of college.'"
Of the peace movement, Becky says, "Protesting the war doesn't bother me as much as the fact that people are forgetting it. When people see Lonnie they ask what happened. They think it was a car accident. They forget. They forget there was a terrible war that didn't even touch them."
For many who served, the war has a way of touching them years later.
Even the most well-adjusted veteran has tales of compatriots who were left a little crazed by the war. The guy who sits in a bar and refuses to wear his artificial leg and just drinks up his disability check . . . The guy who got into drug dealing and beat up his sister one night . . . The veteran who is too nervous to hold down a job, so edgy that his conversations always trail off . . . The loners who talk to no one . . . The ones who have simply disappeared from sight - the ones who belong to no statistics.
Chris Gregory, one member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the late '60s, speaks passionately of the men he's tried to help in and around Boston. There's the one who "just had a difficult war. He's had 35 shock treatments. He was a weapons expert. Tried to get himself killed in a lot of ways. Like pulling a knife on a cop, daring him to shoot him." He was committed to a mental institution last week. "He really just needs someone to care about him," says Gregory.
Sometimes the psychological problems are severe. A Vietnam veteran in Boston a few weeks ago climbed on the roof of an apartment house and blasted away with his rifle. He had just seen "The Deer Hunter" and thought he was back in Vietnam.
Another veteran, filled with guilt, tried to commit suicide several times, once by jumping off a roof and breaking his legs. His awful memories include the time he saw his best buddy killed by a Vietnamese who disappeared into a village. In a fit of madness, he burned a house. When a woman came out and kept plucking at his sleeve, begging him to stop, he suddenly turned and set her on fire. "Nothing can help him," says another veteran. He died over there."
The Veterans Administration consistently has played down the troubled veteran, anxious to paint a rosy picture so that the public would not tar all veterans with the brush of My Lai.
The "well-adjusted, productive" veteran represents "all but a few" who served in the Vietnam era, says VA adminstrator Max Cleland, himself a triple amputee.
The VA itself, however, has estimated that 500,000 need psychological help.
According to the Public Health Service Center for Suicide Statistics, Vietnam veterans under age 34, when compared to non-veterans of the same age, had a 23 percent higher suicide rate.
Twenty percent of all Vietnam era veterans have less than a high school education.
Justice Department estimates reveal that 27 percent of those in state prisons are veterans, and 12 to 13 percent are of the Vietnam era.
Some 26 percent of Vietnam veterans are earning less than $7,000 a year. Some 340,000 do not have jobs.
There are 9 million Vietnam-era veterans and 3 million who actually served there. A bill that would allow them $10 million for psychological counseling has been rejected four times on the Hill since 1971.
Vietnam veterans are by and large contemptuous of the American Legion and VFW - "the gum-chewing super patriots" - who have a lobbying clout unmatched by them. But the psychological readjustment bill will finally pass. Norman B. Harnett, president of the Disabled American Veterans, calls it "too damn little and too damn late."
"There's a lot of rhetoric but little action from the VA and the White House," say DAV officials. Ron Drach, DAV national employment director, attacks Cleland's often-cited statistic that 65 percent of Vietnam veterans participated in GI bill educational programs. "But how many completed training - or still hold jobs? They don't say."
Cleland says heatedly, "Nobody is trying to play a shell game. It's a good news and bad news story. The average age of the Vietnam veteran is 32. Unemployment for veterans age 30 to 34 is lower than the national average. The bad news is that black Vietnamera veterans are 13 percent unemployed, and the disabled are 15 percent.
We're getting a tangible readjustment program, expanding our alcohol treatment. Of course it's late, but not too late. Vietnam Veterans' Week is a symbolic gesture - but not an empty gesture."
The view is sometimes expressed that psychologically disturbed veterans were troubled personalities before they went into the service.
"Nawwww," says Johnny, the demolition expert who lost his leg. "They were too young. They come right out of the womb and went to war.
"Nobody wants to know the truth. The truth is we were kids. It shoulda been called The War of Children. We had colonels, for crying out loud, who still wet the bed."
Johnny was a "wild" kid who hung around street corners in South Boston and enlisted in the Marines when he was a month shy of 17. "When we were kids we were taught that war was glorious. It isn't. It's just a lot of fear. When I went over, I was still into John Wayne. That's why 'The Deer Hunter' really got to me. It was as if I paid $5 for a round-trip ticket to Vietnam. I never expected them to tell the truth - that war isn't glorious. That whole drunk wedding scene; the 'lets-go-to-war' bit. We were all like that. Most of South Boston went. That wedding scene looked like the Lithuanian Club in South Boston. It was a community just like mine . . . or like everybody's . . . everybody who was over there, that is. You didn't have your richies and your Harvards."
Johny is a dark haired, 30-year-old Irish-American with a quick grin. When asked why he didn't have the noticeable edginess of many Veterans, he laughs. "I'm stoned." His marijuana and pipe were by the bed at 10 a.m.
"Hey, but don't get me wrong. I can't pass out in a bar like I used to. I am that paranoid. In Vietnam, you never knew where the enemy was coming from and you don't forget that. Hell, a little old lady blew my leg off. I seen her. It was a command detonated mine. I don't even hate her. Who knows if the V.C. had her kids or something?"
Johnny's bedroom is itself a montage of war. His flag, in triangular fold, is on the bureau. Above it are four rifles. Next to the dresser are his crutches.
"I can remember the burning flesh. I can never get that out. I mean the whole country just recked of death."
For years, his dream was always the same. "It's always the day I got hit. I dream about what happened to me. After the mine, we were hit by ambush. This one V.C. came up on me. He looked at me. I had just got my clip into my rifle and let the bolt go home and he was on top of me and looked down at me, right in the face . . . and he shot me in the knee! And I killed him. That's what bothered me, if I shoulda. . . . Why did he shoot me in the knee, deliberately? He had me! Why didn't he just blow me away, cuz I blew him away right afterwards? I feel guilty that he didn't kill me. You know what I mean? I don't feel guilty that I killed him. This fool give me a second chance and it cost him his life."
Now Johnny says, "I don't believe in heroes. I got every medal you can pick. They felt so guilty about us being there that they gave 'em out like candy. Everybody came home lookin' like Georgie Patton. I never accepted my medals. They give 'em to my mother.
"I told one reporter the truth and he didn't believe me.They wanted to write what a big hero I was. Jimmy, my buddy, was hit and was still on fire and I crawled with Jimmy 25 feet. It had nothin' to do with heroics. It was because I did not want to be alone. Everybody else was dead and I was sittin' there cryin'." He spaces his words for emphasis: "And-I-did-not-want-to-be-alone.
"Cardinal Cushing come up to us in the hospital and he asks how I lost my leg and I says, 'in a card game.' I just got tired.
"The reason I can talk about it now is because I don't believe it anymore. I cannot picture me crawlin' around the rice paddies with a helmet on. It just cracks me up. The whole thing was silly. I remember gettin' mad at myself. Yellin' at myself as we got shot at, 'Are you happy now? Is this what you want? Is it real enough for you buddy?'"
Johnny's anger is what got him through, and still sustains him, even though it helps wreck his civilian life. He is 100 percent disabled - 60 percent for the lost leg and 40 percent because of "unemployability."
"I can't hold down a job because of my nerves. Actually it's because I haven't learned to keep my mouth shut."
Johnny lives in a small house outside Boston, with his two daughters. 6 and 9, and his young wife, who is pregnant. "Everyone said not to marry him. That he was crazy." She just smiles; a pretty, slim woman. "He's fun, and calmer now. And a good father."
Johnny says, "I still get real mad. Like on the beach, when I see other guys running with their kids." He has learned to control the rage. It's better than when he first came home. He comes up with a classic Catch-22 phrase:
"Everyone becomes a little nutty over there in order to save your sanity. I seen Marines dismembered. Something just happens to you. I remember us standing around in a village, laughing, just laughing our heads off, while some villager is dying and the Vietnamese were all sittin' around crying. We were animals. You can't believe this is you, but it is."
When he came home, "you felt like everybody you touched turned to s - - t.
"In the hospital they loaded me up with Demerol" (a pain killer). "I got so hooked I used to watch the clock and wait. I was on it for nine months and had withdrawal symptoms so bad. The VA finally says, 'Hey we think this kid's addicted.' Those fools. I know this kid is addicted. I was depressed all the time. I was mean. I made my mother come in the middle of the snowstorm with a meatball sandwich, and threw it at her because it was cold. Burned my sister with a cigarette cuz she wouldn't give me 50 cents for a beer."
In the long run, says Johnny, "You were better off with your anger. The guys who took it seriously never adjusted. My friends were cruel - and they were the best friends for it. Stole my crutches. We tried to snap (this double amp) out of it the same way, dedicated 'You'll Never Walk Alone' to him on our favorite radio station. It didn't help."
Later Johnny went ot Brandeis University. "I had no business bein' there. Had to walk around with a dictionary just to understand the conversations." It was at the height of the antiwar demonstrations. Johnny sympathized with the students' goal, if not their method.
"I used to say, 'Kid, get that flag off your behind. That's all some mothers have got left of their sons.'"
Today, he is skeptical and cynical about tributes such as Vietnam Veterans' Week.
"When I see as many flags as I've seen lately, I get nervous. I think they're gearing up for another one. That's how they got us. They're already lying to the kids. My nephew's reading a leatherneck book on Operation Swift. They got it broken down into three operations. That never happened. I was there. It was only one - but they couldn't admit they took so many casualties in one operation, so they made it more.
"All we want is our benefits. We gave them four years to kill us and if we made it back they promised us certain things. I have to go in for re-evaluation - to see if my leg is still worth 60 percent. I keep telling em, It ain't gonna grow. ' Now they keep cuttin' back. They lose a letter of mine and so they say I don't get no $500 rebate on my house. They say I can go on welfare and get it. I say I am not welfare. I'm a veteran. Keep the $500."
The way to teach the kids the Vietnam war is "to let Jon Voight go around giving speeches in high schools. He was beautiful. I hate Jane Fonda. She brought Hanoi's propaganda home. They were no flower children. I guess people are finding that out now. But 'Coming Home' really showed the truth about amputees.
"If I had a son and he wanted to go to Canada, what would I do? I'd drive him.
"My kid sister asked me what the war was all about," says Johnny. "I told her, 'Nothin. It was a waste. They're still asking in Washington what it was all about.' So she says, But you got all blown up,' and I says, 'Yeah. If you can remember that - then maybe I wasn't a waste.'" CAPTION: Illustration, from "The Killing Zone", by Miriam Shotland;Picture 1, Lonnie Sparks with daughter Brandy; Picture 2, Stephen Zardis, another Vietnam vet - photos by Mary Ann Carter and Chip Maury for The Washington Post.