Vietnam vets feel for new generation of soldiers

The 30-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon still casts a long shadow over Vietnam veterans -- one that offers shade from the end of a bloody battle while simultaneously darkening psyches over a war that was lost.

But more enervating for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder -- or just dark, unshakable memories -- is a persistent bombardment of news about a new-scythed generation of dead or injured soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"For my patients with PTSD, there are much greater effects from the ongoing war in Iraq and the casualties that are being experienced by American troops," said Dr. Terence M. Keane, director for the National Center for PTSD at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston. "We haven't really been hearing much about the 30-year anniversary of Saigon's fall from our patients here."

For many Vietnam veterans, most of whom were no longer fighting when Saigon finally fell on April 30, 1975, it is today's Iraq war they find as "most unsettling," Dr. Keane said.

The Vietnam vets watch now as a new class of veterans streams back from Iraq, suffering as they once suffered. What had started as a handful of Iraqi war veterans has turned into more than 100 at his facility alone, Dr. Keane added.
It was 30 years ago on April 29 and 30 that the last of the Americans were evacuated from Vietnam. During those two days, in what was called "Operation Frequent Winds," hundreds of Americans and their Vietnamese allies were shuttled from the country by boat and helicopter.

Not long after the last Americans boarded a helicopter that had landed on the roof of the embassy, the city of Saigon fell to the communist armies storming down from the north. Once captured, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

John Remedis of Freetown served in Vietnam in the Army in 1967 and 1968 and earned a Silver Star. In a storm of whizzing bullets, he put out a fire that threatened to detonate a massive explosion and kill hundreds of his comrades. Perhaps too modest, or with his wounds still too fresh, he rarely tells the story. Instead he reads from his official commendation.

For Mr. Remedis, Saigon's fall came as a relief, in no small part because he feared his younger brother would soon get drafted. His own return from the war had its difficulties, primarily struggles with angry demonstrators who had confused people with policies, he said. He rushed home from the airport to change out of his uniform.

Today, as Mr. Remedis hears of soldiers returning from Iraq, he can't help but feel his generation's experiences with being spit on and cursed at by protesters has helped pave a smoother path for American soldiers returning from Iraq.
"One of the biggest things with Vietnam vets is making sure these guys who come back from Iraq get thanked," he said. "To make sure they are not forgotten. It makes no difference if you are for or against the war -- you just have to thank these guys. There are a lot of people who don't agree with the war over there, but you can't hate these guys for going."
Dan Leblanc, director of veteran services for New Bedford, remembers feeling the discrimination that came with returning as a wounded soldier in the late 1960s.

In Vietnam, Mr. Leblanc was shot in the chest with a machine gun. He came home with his right arm still intact, but as protesters still marched in the streets against the war, he lay in a naval hospital bed. He ultimately lost his arm to amputation.

"For me it was a bit different because I came back on my back, in a stretcher," he said. "For me the worst was the treatment I got because I was disabled. I had job applications torn up in my face. These guys send me to war and I get messed up, and when I get back people wouldn't even give me a chance."

He struggled to find anyone who could see past his missing arm. Those with the power to hire him would point and ask if it had happened in Vietnam. When he would say "Yes," they would scramble to save face while dismissing him.
When Mr. Leblanc first heard in 1975 that Saigon had fallen, his reaction was "Thank God, the war is over," he said.
But a subconscious sting lingered because it was not a war that was won. The last Americans and most of their Vietnamese allies "just left," Mr. Leblanc said, cramped into boats or carried from the roof of the American embassy by helicopter.

"It wasn't like the end of World War II when they had parades in the streets," Mr. Leblanc said. "People were glad it was over, but for different reasons."

But now, Mr. Leblanc says he and his Vietnam veteran comrades suffered for the benefit of the next wave of veterans. Medical services are available to them now in ways not seen 30 years ago. But just as important, the public seems to recognize a soldier's sacrifice without linking it to any politician's policy.

"People have sacrificed their lives and limbs for us to have the right to free speech," Mr. Leblanc said. "I have no problem with people protesting the war in Iraq. The men and women like me went to war to protect their right to do that."

©The Standard-Times
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Standard-Times staff writer

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