Reprinted from April 1997, VFW Magazine
Fact vs. fiction By B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley
The stereotypes are wrong. Let's look at the facts, starting with who actually served in Vietnam.
The image of those who fought in Vietnam is one of poorly educated, reluctant draftees -- predominantly poor whites and minorities. But in reality, only one-third of Vietnam-era veterans entered the military through the draft, far lower than the 66 percent drafted in World War II.
It was the best-educated and most egalitarian military force in America's history -- and with the advent of the all-volunteer military, is likely to remain so. In WWII, only 45 percent of the troops had a high school diploma. During the Vietnam War, almost 80 percent of those who enlisted had high school diplomas, and the percentage was higher for draftees -- even though, at the time, only 65 percent of military-age males had a high school
Throughout the Vietnam era, the median education level of the enlisted man was about 13 years. Proportionately, three times as many college graduates served in Vietnam than in WWII.
Another common assumption: The war in Vietnam was fought by youngsters wet behind the ears, who died as teenagers barely old enough to shave. In fact, more 52-year-olds (22) died in Vietnam than 17-year-olds (12). An analysis of data from the Department of Defense shows the average age of men killed in Vietnam was 22.8 years, or almost 23 years old.
Though the notion persists that those who died in Vietnam were mostly members of a minority group, it's not true. About 5 percent of KIAs were Hispanic and 12.5 percent were black -- making both minorities slightly under-represented in their proportion of draft-age males in the national population.
A common negative image of the soldier in Vietnam is that he smoked pot and injected heroin to dull the horrors of combat. However, except for the last couple of years of the war, drug usage among GIs in Vietnam was lower than for U.S. troops stationed elsewhere.
When drug rates started to rise in 1971 and 1972, almost 90 percent of the men who served in Vietnam had already come and gone. A study after the war by the VA showed drug usage of veterans and non-veterans to be about the same. And marijuana -- not heroin -- was the drug used in 75 percent of the cases. Of those addicted, 88 percent kicked the habit within three years of returning.
Posterboy of Anti-War Movement
The anti-war movement paraded Vietnam servicemen who had deserted their units as "proof" that it was an immoral war. But of the 5,000 men who deserted for various causes during the Vietnam War period, only 5 percent did so while attached to units in Vietnam.
Only 24 deserters attributed their action to the desire to "avoid hazardous duty." Some 97 percent of Vietnam veterans received honorable discharges, exactly the same rate for the military in the 10 years prior to the war.
After the war ended, reports began to circulate of veterans so depraved from their war experiences that they turned to crime, with estimates of the number of incarcerated Vietnam veterans as high as one-quarter of the prison population.
But most of these accounts were based on self-reporting by criminals. In every major study of Vietnam veterans where military records were verified, an insignificant number of prisoners were found to be actual Vietnam veterans.
A corollary to the prison myth is the belief that substantial numbers of Vietnam veterans are unemployed. A study by the Labor Department in 1994 showed an unemployment rate of 3 percent for Vietnam veterans -- lower than that of Vietnam-era veterans who served outside the Vietnam theater (5 percent), and for all male veterans (4.9 percent).
The same is true for the nonsense that Vietnam vets have high rates of suicide, often heard as the "fact" that more veterans had died by their own hand than in combat. But that's a myth, too. A 1988 study by the Centers for Disease Control found Vietnam veterans had suicide rates well within the 1.7 percent norm of the general population.
In fact, Vietnam veterans are as successful or more successful than men their own age who did not go to war. Disproportionate numbers of Vietnam veterans serve in Congress, for instance. Vice President Al Gore is a Vietnam veteran, as is enormously popular Colin Powell.
They run Fortune 500 corporations (Frederick Smith of Federal Express), write screenplays (Bill Broyles formerly of Newsweek) and report the evening news (ABC correspondent Jack Smith).
Actor Dennis Franz, who plays a detective on TV's NYPD Blue, is a Vietnam vet, as are large numbers of real law enforcement agents, prosecutors and attorneys. No facet of American life has been untouched by the positive contributions of Vietnam veterans.
While stereotypes may persist in Hollywood and the media, America's finest increasingly run the country.
Vietnam Warriors: A Statistical Profile
In Uniform and In Country
Vietnam Vets: 9.7% of their generation.
9,087,000 military personnel served on active duty during the Vietnam era (Aug. 5, 1964-May 7, 1975).
8,744,000 GIs were on active duty during the war (Aug. 5, 1964-March 28, 1973).
3,403,100 (including 514,300 offshore) personnel served in the Southeast Asia Theater (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, flight crews based in Thailand, and sailors in adjacent South China Sea waters).
2,594,000 personnel served within the borders of South Vietnam (Jan. 1, 1965- March 28, 1973).
Another 50,000 men served in Vietnam between 1960 and 1964.
Of the 2.6 million, between 1-1.6 million (40-60%) either fought in combat, provided close support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.
7,484 women (6,250 or 83.5% were nurses) served in Vietnam.
Peak troop strength in Vietnam: 543,482 (April 30, 1969).
Hostile deaths: 47,378
Non-hostile deaths: 10,800
Total: 58,202 (includes men formerly classified as MIA and Mayaguez casualties). Men who have subsequently died of wounds account for the changing total.
8 nurses died -- 1 was KIA.
Married men killed: 17,539
61% of the men killed were 21 or younger.
Highest state death rate: West Virginia- 84.1 (national average 58.9 for every 100,000 males in 1970).
Wounded: 303,704 -- 153,329 hospitalized + 150,375 injured requiring no hospital care.
Severely disabled: 75,000 -- 23,214 100% disabled; 5,283 lost limbs; 1,081 sustained multiple amputations.
Amputation or crippling wounds to the lower extremities were 300% higher than in WWII and 70% higher than in Korea. Multiple amputations occurred at the rate of 18.4% compared to 5.7% in WWII.
Missing in Action: 2,338.
POWs: 766 (114 died in captivity).
Draftees vs. Volunteers
25% (648,500) of total forces in country were draftees. (66% of U.S. armed forces members were drafted during WWII.)
Draftees accounted for 30.4% (17,725) of combat deaths in Vietnam.
Reservists killed: 5,977.
National Guard: 6,140 served; 101 died.
Total draftees (1965-73): 1,728,344.
Actually served in Vietnam: 38%
Marine Corps draft: 42,633.
Last man drafted: June 30, 1973.
Race and Ethnic Background
88.4% of the men who actually served in Vietnam were Caucasian; 10.6% (275,000) were black; 1% belonged to other races.
86.3% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasian (includes Hispanics); 12.5% (7,241) were black; 1.2% belonged to other races.
170,000 Hispanics served in Vietnam; 3,070 (5.2% of total) died there.
70% of enlisted men killed were of Northwest European descent.
86.8% of the men who were killed as a result of hostile action were Caucasian; 12.1% (5,711) were black; 1.1% belonged to other races.
14.6% (1,530) of non-combat deaths were among blacks.
34% of blacks who enlisted volunteered for the combat arms.
Overall, blacks suffered 12.5% of the deaths in Vietnam at a time when the percentage of blacks of military age was 13.5% of the total population.
Religion of Dead: Protestant -- 64.4%; Catholic -- 28.9%; other/none --6.7%.
76% of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower middle/working class backgrounds.
Three-fourths had family incomes above the poverty level; 50% were from middle income backgrounds.
Some 23% of Vietnam vets had fathers with professional, managerial or technical occupations.
79% of the men who served in Vietnam had a high school education or better when they entered the military service. (63% of Korean War vets and only 45% of WWII vets had completed high school upon separation.)
Deaths by region per 100,000 of population: South-31; West-29.9; Midwest-28.4; Northeast-23.5.
Winning & Losing
82% of veterans who saw heavy combat strongly believe the war was lost because of lack of political will.
Nearly 75% of the public agrees it was a failure of political will, not of arms.
97% of Vietnam-era veterans were honorably discharged.
91% of actual Vietnam War veterans and 90% of those who saw heavy combat are proud to have served their country.
66% of Vietnam vets say they would serve again if called upon.
87% of the public now holds Vietnam veterans in high esteem.