IRAQ to WISCONSIN: The Vietnam Connection
More than 40 years ago, Vietnam veterans returned home from a difficult and painful war. They faced a lack of support from fellow citizens and, in many cases, their government. Some of those veterans are working to make sure Iraq War veterans get a better deal.
By Mark Hentschel
Jim Williams, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran, returned to the United States in 1967 at the age of 22. Williams was looking forward to putting the war behind him and moving on with his life. Williams' expertise in Vietnam was as an engineer in the transportation unit that delivered supplies to the front lines.
He thought his skills would translate into a nice steady job, but he couldn't find one.
Williams struggled to find work back in the United States, and had a hard time being accepted as a Vietnam veteran in the 60's and 70's.
"Finding work was tough, because a lot of people who were hiring thought we were drug users, baby killers, and just plain crazy," said Williams. "The media in Vietnam could cover things around the clock unlike Korea and World War II. Sometimes they portrayed us unfairly, probably to please the public who hated us.”
Williams said the worst part was the lack of respect.
“It didn't make sense to me why they hated us so much. Most of us were just young kids, not even able to drink legally, who didn't have a dollar to our name. It just made me sad and angry at the same time, how they came to hate us so much, when it wasn't even our fault why we were there," Williams said.
Williams bounced from job to job, but was finally able to find an engineer job in Kenosha, which he did for over 20 years until he retired. He retired due to the loss of his leg at age 50, which was related to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Williams wanted to fight for benefits for his injury, but said he was tired of fighting.
It wasn't until the Iraq War that Jim found energy for a new cause – making sure younger veterans were treated better than he was.
"What drove me to start fighting again for was when my nephews joined the Iraq War in 2002," Williams said. “I still serve as a counselor to returning Iraq vets for any problems they have. At first I wanted to do it for my nephews, but it turned out I wanted to do for every veteran."
Williams leads group discussions with veterans who gather each week to talk about their experience in combat and difficulties with life. Another program is a mentor program, where Vietnam veterans take Iraq veterans under their wing.
George Stoeber, a Navy veteran who served in the first Gulf War and took part in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, was inspired by Vietnam veterans to help fight for better rights and services.
"My uncle was a Vietnam veteran and I saw the struggles he had coming home as a kid," said Stoeber. "He struggled with work and adjusting to life. After returning from Iraq, I thought I could help veterans of today and past get the proper benefits they deserve and that is what I do today.”
Stoeber works in Milwaukee Veteran Affairs as the Human Resources liaison, assisting the Milwaukee VA staff with distribution of benefits.
Stoeber said the government is taking better care of veterans, and that Vietnam veterans like Williams and his uncle are responsible for this. Stoeber believes the VA has made drastic changes in dealing with health issues, such as PTSD, that Vietnam and Iraq veterans have both suffered from.
"When Vietnam veterans were discharged, they were not given any mental health care," said Stoeber. "They were expected to return to their normal lives. Everybody realized it was a mistake to not have given that care, because years later they were struggling with PTSD, addictions, and struggling adjusting to civilian life."
The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study concluded that 30% of men who served in Vietnam had PTSD. A research study done at Stanford University found that as many as 35% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD.
Organizations like VietNow made up of Vietnam veterans, helped Vietnam veterans with psychological problems. Due to high rates of PTSD among Iraq soldiers, VietNow is also offering their counseling services to them.
Other organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion still have a major impact on this new generation of veterans.
Members of Congress were at the American Legion’s annual convention in Milwaukee in August of 2010, proposing improvements to veterans’ care.
They suggested improvements to psychological care and better benefits for disabled veterans and their families. Like Stoeber, other veterans appreciate what the Vietnam vets have done for them.
Brent Hibbard, a Milwaukee veteran who served in Iraq, said he is grateful for the efforts that Vietnam veterans have made for the new generation of vets.
"All the vets before me did a tremendous job working to get us where we are today," said Hibbard. "I thank them every time I get a chance."
Hibbard, who created the fundraiser Homes for Vets, which creates specialized homes for returning and disabled veterans, said he wants to give back just like the Vietnam veterans did.
"Veterans have to look out for each other, not only on the battlefield but afterwards," said Hibbard. "Once the war is over, doesn't mean our fight has ended. We have to continue to help each other and our families."
Vietnam veterans have fought Congress to pass laws to give advantages to veterans returning home from war, such as the "Veterans' Preference." The ‘Veteran's Preference’ was designed after World War II to give vets coming home to an advantage to find work.
Stephanie Miles is an employee at the Milwaukee VA who specializes in this initiative to get veterans an advantage in job employment.
"By putting on their resume ‘I'm a veteran,’ they would be hired over someone who is not a vet," said Miles. "If they were turned down over a non veteran they could file a grievance against the company."
This preference included Vietnam service people, but Congress decided to cut veterans off from wars after Vietnam. After Congress made this decision, Vietnam veterans spoke out until Congress included future vets in the benefit.
Eddy Krogman is a 25-year-old Iraq veteran from Wisconsin who recognizes the contribution of the veterans who came before him.
"You see I got my education paid for free, and I got all the benefits I enjoy today being a veteran because of Vietnam," said Krogman. "In my opinion, you couldn't find one veteran today of my generation who doesn't appreciate what the Vietnam vets did for us. They treated them like shit. The government and the public did, but they didn't give up. They made sure we got free education, which they didn't get, and better benefits overall. They fought hard for us, and I'll always respect them for that."
Tom Keegan, a 25 year-old soldier from Kenosha, returned home from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is concerned about his benefits.
"I know the government with the economy is cutting everything to save taxes. I know they are going to cut into the military budget and benefits, " said Keegan. "I'm pissed off about that, but I know with our economy it might happen."
Stoeber shares Keegan’s fears.
"It's true with our economy cuts are going to be made," said Stoeber. "Still, there is no way, the Milwaukee VA or any VA in America would stand by and let veterans receive no benefits or hardly any benefits. There is some major worries amongst veterans that they will not receive the care and benefits they are getting, but as long as the VA, and other organizations are around, we will continue to fight for veterans' rights."