"Veterans Day?" Robert Bergmann said with contempt. "You see right here how we are celebrating Veterans Day. Puller is trying to walk. I'm trying to stop drinking. Patriotism was a long time ago, man, and I'm trying to forget."
Bergmann, 28, a former Army sniper, spent yesterday at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Northwest Washington. With him in a dimly lit, cinder block waiting room were former Marine sergeant Raymond Puller, 39, and Eddie Thomas, 29, formerly of the Army infantry.
Like many other Vietnam veterans, they believe they have been forgotten.
"If I had any idea that I would have gotten this type of reaction once I came back home, I would never have gone," said Puller, adjusting his pajama-clad leg to a more comfortable position on a pillow.
"I would never have fought for this country. The war is over and we're no longer needed. We've been thrown in the dump like an old pair of shoes . . .
And to think I enlisted."
"The next time the president wants to fight a war, he'll have to fight himself," said Bergmann, who is at the VA trying to kick the alcoholism he has been living with since his second week in Vietnam.
"The government and the people of this country have given us such a raw deal that nobody would ever want to fight in a war for this country again."
Veterans like Puller and Bergmann do. They say they remember the death and the destruction, the horror of fighting an unseen enemy in a war that no one could ever understand or explain.
On Dec. 29, 1971, Puller began his third morning in Vietnam, on patrol with his unit in a steaming, overgrown jungle near Quangtri, looking for the enemy.
Suddenly, a barrage. Machine gun fire from nowhere. Bodies falling. Puller lay face down in the muck, his left leg shattered by a Viet Cong bullet.
Yesterday Puller was recovering from the 35th operation on his leg.His ordeal has continued in the years since the war ended.And he remembers vividly feelings then as he contrasts the violence of the war and the reception the veterans received.
"Coming home ws worse," Puller said. "We came home and tried to pick up where we left off. But at the same time, the people in this country were trying to forget Vietnam. They were trying to forget us."
As Puller spoke, men and women, veterans in the wheelchairs and children with umbrellas, gathered across the Potomac River at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, holding a solemn ceremony in honor of the country's fallen heroes and its glorious past.
"Stars and Stripes Forever" was played. Boy Scouts snapped to attention and saluted. Max Cleland, the VA administrator who lost both legs and his right forearm in Vietnam, spoke of the need to remember the Vietnam veteran. And Postmaster General William F. Bolger presented a Veterans Day stamp, designed to commemorate the soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
At the VA hospital, Bergmann lives in Edgewater, Md. is trying to forget 18 months in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. He was the point man of a reconnaissance team then, a sergeant in a squad known as "Johnson's Savages."
Puller, a Lanham resident, is trying not to think about what will happen if this operation doesn't work. "They're just going to amputate the whole leg." he said, if that happens.
Then Eddie Thomas spoke up. At 29, Thomas is an alcoholic who began drinking while on duty with the infantry.
"I've been drinking to forget," Thomas said. "I wanted to forget the people killed and the bodies and heads and arms up and down the side of the road. I did a lot of praying then, and I cried a little -- I guess most everybody cried -- but mostly I drank. Now I need to get it back together." e
"I got a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star . . . eight medals in all," Thomas said. "But I can't get a job. They say that employers are supposed to give us preference, but somebody would rather hire a non-vet with some experience. But how can you get job experience if you can't get a job?"
"If you can go to Nam and come back unharmed -- which is damn near impossible -- you come back to worse problems than you had over there," Puller said.
"You come back and you can't find a job, can't make ends meet, you might have a drug problem or a drink problem -- you're an outcast, you can't fit in. People think, 'Oh, you're one of those weirdos who was over in Nam.'"
"I joined the Army because I wasn't really equipped to do anything else. I had no other skills," Bergmann said.
"I thought that if I joined the Army they would teach me a skill, and that when I got out I would get preference for a job . . . But all they taught me to do was shoot . . . . It took me five years to get a job in the print shop at the Department of Transportatin."
"It burns me up," Thomas said. "We put our life on the line, but we can't get no jobs. People are going hungry, people who fought in the war, and the U.S. is bringing refugees into the country and feeding the starving people all over the world. We're helping everyone but ourselves.
"We fought in a war that people want to forget, but we did serve our country," Bergmann said. "We should be recognized for jobs and aid. There shouldn't be as many men out of work, not getting counseling or having a roof over their head.
"We didn't turn our back on our country, and it shouldn't turn its back on us."