"People tend to look on us as a burden. I say, forget it! Look on us as a resource. Look on us as survivors. Look on us as those who have learned at a terrible price the wisdom and the lessons that our experience has given us. We've got the strength. We've got the knowledge. We've got the caring. Let's go out and get it, folks."
The banquet room of the downtown hotel burst into a standing ovation for the intense figure hunched in a wheelchair at the head table: Robert Muller, whose spinal cord was severed by a bullet while he was working his way up a Vietnamese hillside in April 1969. Now age 34, with a law degree, Bobby Muller is head of Vietnam Veterans of America, an embryonic organization with modest corporate and foundation funding, a small staff and big plans for a nationwide membership campaign.
Some say it won't work, that Muller is too driven, and that anyway Vietnam veterans aren't joiners -- that they joined up once and that once was enough. And they could be right about that.
But the scene here during Buffalo's second annual Vietnam Veterans Week says something of consequence, nevertheless, about a significant slice of the Vietnam generation. It confirms that after a decade (more or less) of withdrawal and alienation, hundreds of thousands of those who went to Vietnam, or were in uniform and subject to service there, are checking back into American society.
Not all 9 million of them -- and not all in the same way. But judging from scores of interviews here and around the country, there are more than enough common denominators of emotion and opinion to suggest the evolution of an important influence on public policy having to do with military manpower, with the use of American force in the conduct of foreign policy, with war and peace.
Of those who were in the armed forces during the Vietnam years, roughly 6 million did not go to Vietnam; of the 2.7 million who did, only about 1.6 million did any fighting.So there were wide variations in the Vietnam experiences and, accordingly, there is no one "Vietnam veteran" view. Some veterans, perhaps permanently radicalized, will march on Washington or teach-in on campuses to stop reinstitution of the draft. Some have emerged as pacifists -- up to the point of attack on U.S. territory.
Others see themselves pretty much the way they did when they went off to war -- as warriors and patriots.
Whatever the case, increasing numbers of Vietnam veterans have come to accept the watchdog role laid claim to by Muller: "Nobody is in a better position to address the question of how to meet military manpower needs or to commit U.S. soldiers anywhere in the world than those who responded when there was a call the last time and have paid the price since then."
This developing sense of pride and purpose has something to do with a growing public understanding of the war and those who were caught up in it. (A recent poll found 60 percent of Americans believing that the Vietnam veterans have gotten a raw deal.) But mostly it has to do with the veterans' own discovery of themselves and of each other -- of a brotherhood of "Nam."
You see it in dozens of local self-help organizations, manned by veterans, to deal iwth the problems of the disadvantage and the disaffected: jobs, drug and alcohol abuse, psychological stress, the stigma of "bad paper" discharges, family breakups, deficient education benefits, an overblown and unresponsive Veterans Administration all too reminiscent of their military experience and, perhaps most threatening, the latent, still undetermined hazards to health from contamination by the defoliant Agent Orange.
You see it in the U.S. Congress, where a 19-member Vietnam veterans caucus struggles to improve Vietnam veterans' benefits against the retrograde influence of too many of their elders. You see some measure of it in the co-sponsorship by all 100 U.S. senators of a resolution that would set aside two acres on the Mall for a Vietnam War memorial.
But nowhere is it better illustrated now than in American communities. Is Buffalo special? In its civic pride and fierce ethnic diversity, perhaps. But in terms of Vietnam veterans making their presence felt, it is by no means unique.
All of which leads me to question the quick conclusion reached by some Washington authorities -- heartened by the public response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet plunge into Afghanistan -- that the "Vietnam Syndrome" has been laid to rest. What the Buffalo scene tells me is that, in an age of one-issue politics, Vietnam veterans (and their next of kin) are going to constitute an increasingly influential political force.