WHO WENT: Of American men of draft age between 1964 and 1973, approximately 40 percent served in the military. Of these, about 25 percent went to Vietnam, representing just one-tenth of the draft-age (18 to 26) male population. Americans in relatively small numbers were there much earlier, but the period of heavy military involvement in Vietnam lasted approximately seven years, from March 1965, when two Marine battalions landed near Danang, to March 1973, when the last U.S. soldiers (except for a small number of observers and embassy guards) flew out of Saigon under a cease-fire agreement that failed, in the end, to bring peace to Vietnam.
Various figures have been cited for how many U.S. troops served in Vietnam, but the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS), done in the mid-1980s considered to be the most extensive study on the soldiers' experience, says that slightly more than 3.1 million served in "the Vietnam theater of operations"--which included air bases in neighboring countries and naval vessels offshore.
The NVVRS reported that 7,166 women served in Vietnam, most as military nurses. Other estimates range up to 11,000. Only a minority of soldiers in Vietnam saw combat frequently and regularly. One widely accepted estimate is that approximately one-quarter of the men who served there were assigned to combat units, while three-quarters were in supporting roles.
ATTITUDES: A major opinion survey done for the Veterans Administration in 1979 reported that most Vietnam veterans were proud of their service to their country and would serve again. However the survey found veterans were disillusioned about the country's government and leaders. "Vietnam era veterans are more alienated from and cynical about the nation's political institutions than is the public as a whole . . . much more alienated than a comparable cross section of the public of a similar age and level of education," the survey's authors wrote. Nearly 60 percent of vets agreed with the statement that Vietnam veterans "were made suckers, having to risk their own lives in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." Fewer than half of Vietnam veterans felt they received a "friendly reception" from others in their age group when they returned home.
THE DRAFT: The Vietnam-era draft was relatively small, by historical standards. One reason was that the post-World War II baby boom created a very large manpower pool. Remarkably, the percentage of men ages 18 to 26 who entered military service during the Vietnam era was lower than the percentage during the nine years of peacetime conscription that preceded it. During the war, approximately 210,000 men were reported to federal authorities for violating draft laws, but nearly 90 percent of those cases were never prosecuted. (Some evaders avoided prosecution by reporting for induction, but many cases were dropped for other reasons.) Only 3,250 men went to prison. One postwar study estimated that another 360,000 men broke draft laws but weren't reported because draft boards didn't bother or because their offenses were never discovered.
Sources: Veterans Administration; "Myths and Realities: A Study of Attitudes Toward Vietnam Era Veterans" (Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, July 1980); Richard A. Kulka et al, "Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation: Report of Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study"; Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, "Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation"