American Indian Veterans of Vietnam

Vietnam, it has long been said, was a war of the young and poor. Not so well known is the fact that the war was fought in disproportionate numbers by the poorest of the poor: young American Indians.One in every twelve eligible white American men served in Vietnam, writes University of Arizona professor Tom Holm in Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls, just published by the University of Texas Press. For American Indians, the number was one in four. Holm, of Creek and Cherokee descent, was one of the 42,000 Indians who served there. He remarks that his tour was unexceptional -- "I just did like a lot of guys," he says, "by trying to do my job and get out in one piece." Other Indian soldiers had a tougher time of it, combating racism as well as an elusive enemy. A Seneca remembers an officer telling newcomers to his front-line firebase, "This is Fort Apache, boys, and out there is Indian country." The veteran told Holm, "It made me wonder who the real enemy is." Other veterans whom Holm interviewed for his book recall being ridiculed by superiors and being singled out for punishment.Most Indians in Vietnam were assigned to what are euphemistically called "nontechnical military occupations" -- that is, front-line combat assignments -- through the assumption that they were likely to be braver and better fighters than other soldiers. One Indian veteran recalls that his commander "called me 'Chief' like every other Indian, and probably thought that I could see and hear better than the white guys. Maybe he thought I could track down the enemy. I don't know for sure, but I guess he figured that Indians were warriors and hunters by nature." For that reason, many Indians were put in the most dangerous positions, a pattern enshrined, Holm notes, by the character of Billy in the film Predator, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and company take on a bloodthirsty alien.Holm's book is based in part on a survey undertaken in 1983 by the Veterans Administration of 170 American Indian veterans representing 77 tribal groups. The survey, Holm says, was a governmental afterthought: the VA had commissioned similar surveys of African American, Hispanic, and women veterans of the war, but had not thought to track the postwar lives of American Indian veterans, who go unmentioned in the supposedly comprehensive VA report "Legacies of Vietnam." On its completion, Holm's study was ignored by the VA for reasons that Holm says are mysterious. "Our working group turned in a report, and nothing happened," he says. "It may just have been Reagan-era politics; you know how bureaucracies are. They may not have wanted to hear what we had to say. Or it may have been that no one cared."Of the survey respondents, 70 percent said that they volunteered for service or submitted to conscription because they believed military service was a part of their warrior tradition -- a tradition that might connect them to the past in a time of tremendous upheaval and dislocation. Many others joined to get away from the reservation. As Holm notes, "if you're between the ages of 18 and 25 out there, there's just nothing to do."But, Holm hastens to add, they did not join to become "good Americans." One fighter said, "We are pledged by treaty to provide military assistance to the U.S. in times of war. I know that the U.S. has broken its part of the bargain with us, but we are more honorable than that."When the warriors returned from Vietnam, they found themselves ignored, both individually and as a group. "The problem that still plagues many Native American veterans," Holm writes, "is that virtually no one save their own people knows of their sacrifices in the war, much less that they had fought in numbers exceeding their proportional population."They also returned troubled by their role in the conflict. "I heard story after story about Vietnamese saying to Indians, 'You, me, same-same.' The raids on villages, rounding up civilians to put them on reservations, the whole colonial thing -- well, this unconnected a lot of guys. They began to wonder what they were fighting for." One veteran remarks, "I was fighting the wrong people, pure and simple, and I never got over it."Some veterans, Holm writes, became radicalized by the war, among them American Indian Movement leaders John Trudell, Carter Camp, and Bill Means. But many more turned to drugs or alcohol, and the great majority of Holm's respondents report alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, or extreme feelings of rage in numbers far higher than those of the general population of Vietnam veterans.Time is on the side of healing, Holm writes, if only because American Indian veterans "are fast becoming elders themselves and perhaps better able to subordinate their egos to the continuity of their societies and cultures -- exactly as the warriors did in the past." But Holm believes that the government must do more to help those veterans. "I think the VA should work closely with Native healers, figure out some way to accredit and pay them to help Indian veterans deal with their problems," he says. "Native healing works, at least for us. The VA could also be more aggressive in addressing issues like housing for Native veterans, because housing is a big problem."In the end, Holm says, the American Indian experience in Vietnam demonstrates that "warfare takes a grievous emotional toll on those who survive the battlefield" -- a toll that too many warriors are still paying.


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