By Chas Henry
Are they more similar than different — veterans of the 1960s-1970s war in Vietnam and those who have fought over the past decade and a half in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The question was explored, as veterans from both eras met in New York City Sept. 14 — for a conversation that included filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, whose 10-part, 18-hour documentary series: The Vietnam War premieres on PBS September 17.
“We as Vietnam veterans have from the very beginning supported the new veterans,” claimed Marsha Four, vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America, a panelist at the event. She noted that one factor motivating that support was a feeling among many Vietnam vets that, when they came home from war, they did not feel the encouragement and backing of those who had fought World War II.
As one Vietnam veteran in the audience noted, he and fellow soldiers heard a recurring criticism from older vets: “We won our war, you didn’t win your war.”
Said Four: “This is how [Vietnam Veterans of America] started. This is why we started… never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Roger Harris, who fought as a combat Marine in Vietnam — and is featured prominently in the documentary series — suggested that the modern practice of requiring most service members to remain with their units for some period of time after returning from combat zones may help ease current vets back into life at home. He recalled his jarring return from Vietnam — being one day in a combat zone, then 24-36 hours later, in Boston. “Airport, airport, home,” he remembered. “It was shocking, disturbing, discouraging.”
Vets of both generations have faced common experiences trying to work through what has been termed the “moral injury” of combat.
“My battalion lost 33 Marines in the battle of Fallujah,” said Marine Corps veteran Zach Iscol. “Since then, we’ve now lost 23 to suicide.” He has founded the non-profit Headstrong Project — which provides free mental health care for veterans. He says Vietnam veterans — some of whom mentored Marines in his unit while he was on active duty — have continued to reach across “warrior generations” to help.
“There’s a shared sense of duty,” said Iscol, of “people who answered the call. That’s something that transcends every type of divide…race, religion, geographic location, or even the war that they fought.”
Further evidence of veterans sharing cross-generational understanding appears in an “extra” segment producers Burns and Novick created. What they’re calling “Episode 11” of their 10-part documentary shares emotion-laden scenes of Vietnam combat Marine John Musgrave, and three or four other veterans of his generation counseling younger vets who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. All in the room had dealt with anxiety and depression, some in both age groups had considered taking their own lives.
“The enemy we face right now is as deadly as any we’ve faced on the battlefield, only it’s inside us,” Musgrave tells the younger vets.”
“Life is worth living,” he encourages, noting that the infantry soldier’s ethos — just keep putting one foot in front of the other — can be a useful in coping. “Surviving war,” says Musgrave, “is putting one day in front of another.”