As they left Vietnam, traveled to New York City and were reunited with their friends and families, veterans came face-to-face with their changed status. The shift from soldier to civilian, from GI to veteran left some men and women feeling bewildered – and sometimes angry.
The experiences of New York City’s Vietnam veterans were probably similar to those of veterans returning to other cities around the nation. They encountered the exhilaration of departure from Vietnam, the anti-climax of arrival in the United States, and the disorientation of arrival.
Listening to their stories remains the only way of documenting this profoundly significant, private moment. Archival resources for understanding this episode in the lives of an estimated 250,000 New Yorkers do not exist.
Very often, soldiers tell these stories in such a way as to emphasize the trauma of return, an ordeal that, as much as Vietnam itself, separates the experience of Vietnam veterans from others – both those at home who did not serve, and others who served in earlier wars. But whether experienced as trauma or something else, the soldier’s arrival home from abroad marked Vietnam veterans.
They were different, and they knew it. It is one of the milestones by which veterans define themselves.
Here, Henry Burke describe the anger and guilt he experienced when he returned to the States, and offers some explanations for it.
For some veterans, the Vietnam experience led them to political activism, after the war.
In 1967, at the age of seventeen, John Hamill enlisted as a medic in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Even though he was against the war in Vietnam, Hamill volunteered because he wanted to witness what he believed would be his nation’s “defining moment.” In November of 1968, after a year of service, John came home to a rapidly changing America. He enrolled in Staten Island Community College with his brother Denis and eventually graduated from the CUNY BA program in 1975. While a student, he became an early and active member of VVAW and began his career in journalism by writing freelance for the Village Voice.
In this clip, Hamill recalls his days with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Video recorded by Sunny Liu.
Anthony Wallace, from Brooklyn, was badly wounded in a fire fight in Tay Ninh province, South Vietnam on April 15, 1970. Three other men in the bunker with him that night were killed. William Richard Di Santis was one of them. Bill Di Santis is honored on Panel 11W Line 006 of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Here, Mr. Wallace tells of visiting the Di Santis family in summer, 1970. This story is told on pages 230-232 of my book Bringing It All Back Home.