FORT LEE, Va. (April 12, 2018) -- National Vietnam War Veterans Day was observed March 29.
Similar commemorative events on a smaller scale have existed since 1973, all with the goal of recognizing the sacrifices veterans and their families made during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern U.S. history.
For some who served back then, the observances come off as a consolation of sorts – a makeup for the ticker tape parades they did not get or the “Thank you for your service” greetings that were absent from the lips of the American public.
While most are thankful the country has had a change of heart and is growing more appreciative of their service, there are segments of the veteran population who believe full acknowledgement of their sacrifices during the war has yet to occur.
Count Jim Murphy as one of them. The Henrico resident said Vietnam veterans have been deprived of what they deserve. “As far as recognition, no, I don’t think we have gotten our due,” said the 68-year-old who is married to an installation employee. He then cited insufficient treatment of mental health issues as a glaring example of where the effort has fallen short.
Undoubtedly, the war fragmented the American populous and those who served were made the ground-zero target of any discourse. Upon their return home, many were greeted by the vitriolic chants of anti-war protesters and some were even spat upon. There were plenty of tepid reactions, too – stares, scoffs or just plain ambivalence. Unnerving and confusing to the many returnees who fulfilled their obligation, the reactions pushed some into the shadows of anxiety and guilt.
“As far as talking about my experiences in Vietnam – even to my family – I couldn’t,” Murphy recalled and added. “I couldn’t until I realized how sick I was from holding it all in.”
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder more than 30 years after his return from Southeast Asia. The negative sentiment toward those who served as well as the hard realities of his experience as an Army pathfinder were largely responsible, he said.
“I grew up thinking what John Wayne and Audie Murphy – Hollywood’s TV heroes – were doing was war,” he said, noting his notion of combat was distorted. “(Watching movies,) you couldn’t hear the moans and groans; you couldn’t see the pain that literally is in the air after a firefight. You never forget that, the stink of death. When somebody dies, they’re instantly stinking. Their bowels move, faces collapse … it’s just a horror.”
The terror lurked within Murphy for years, manifesting itself into sometimes erratic behavior, insomnia and nightmares. Having gained a measure of control over the cancerous thoughts, the veteran now sees himself as a husband, father of college graduates and former successful car salesman. It’s a fortunate turnaround compared to others who served.
“All of my friends who were drafted – those in similar situations to me – are in bad shape when I see them now because they didn’t get the recognition,” said Murphy. “They don’t trust the government because it seems like America turned its back on them.”
Some studies show debilitating levels of PTSD among 15-30 percent of the more than 2 million men and women who served in the theater of operations. The disorder can be the basis for dysfunction, causing unemployment, substance abuse and other problems.
“There are vets on the corner right now who are homeless; who believe nobody cares; who believe they did the wrong thing (serving in the war) – all kinds of stuff running through their heads,” said Murphy.
Burgeoning signs of veteran advocacy include a 33 percent drop in homelessness among former Vietnam-era service members since 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additionally, the rates of PTSD have declined to roughly 1-in-12, according to Columbia University researcher Bruce P. Dohrenwend, Ph.D. These signs of progress are good news, without a doubt, but the realization it took over 40 years to get there is evidence of the war’s lingering effects.
Murphy himself said he has benefitted from the multitude of agencies and organizations that are reaching out to veterans and offering the specialized support needed to address the unique challenges faced by those who served during the Vietnam era. As a way of paying it forward, he is in the planning stages of a program that will offer temporary homes for Vietnam veterans – places that will serve as havens for help and healing.
“My goal is to reach the Soldier in these guys and bring that spirit back to life,” he said, noting he wants the flag flying and reveille playing in the morning at the facilities. “These guys deserve some life; they deserve a hand up because they really don’t want a handout.”
Having been in group therapy sessions with combat veterans and others who served, Murphy said he knows where communication breakdowns occur. Combat veterans, he observed, are not likely to open up to those who cannot not personally share the experience of being in the fight.
“So many of the veterans I know are still isolated,” he declared. “If we can be together, then we can find ourselves.”
As for continued public recognition activities, Murphy admitted they are a catalyst for healing because they keep the conversation alive. Last year, President Trump signed the legislation that established National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Former President Barack Obama issued a proclamation on May 25, 2012, to honor veterans and their families from May 28 of that year (Memorial Day) thru Nov. 11, 2025 (Veterans Day).
A portion of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War proclamation reads: “In recognition of a chapter in our nation’s history that must never be forgotten. Let us renew our sacred commitment to those who answered our country’s call in Vietnam and those who awaited their safe return.”
In short, these presidential measures are calls to action to do what has not been done. They have inspired individuals like Murphy who wants to do his part but concedes he does not have all the answers to help heal fellow veterans. He encourages everyone to help out.
“If you have a way to help, do it,” he said. “If you don’t have all the answers, just step out on faith.”
Count Murphy in as one who has done just that.