Veterans highlight emotional isolation in Vietnam War panel
Reflecting on wartime experiences as well as assimilation and treatment after service were six veterans who participated in a panel on the Vietnam War Tuesday. The event was one of many offered throughout Veterans Week, which the University of Michigan’s Veteran and Military Services offers this Monday through Friday to celebrate and educate the public about the sacrifices of veterans.
The six men served in various positions on the ground and in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. One panelist, Ted Spenser, said he continued his military work in a lifelong career.
While each of the veterans' jobs varied greatly, when asked by an audience member about soldier camaraderie, they were all in support of one another.
Panelist Dale Throneberry, however, said a distance was maintained between fellow servicemen.
“We never developed that real close relationship because everyone was always constantly rotating in and out of the whole unit, which was difficult, especially when you got home and you wanted to talk about what had happened, but there wasn’t anybody to talk to,” Throneberry said. “Your parents, your family, your friends, they’d hear the story one time and that was it. They didn’t want to hear it again.”
Lawrence Dolph, another panelist, said he felt World War II veterans bonded through a common victory and national support, while their service and return from Vietnam felt more isolating and defeating.
“We never experienced what the World War II guys described in various terms — I think a term they would never use today is ‘bromance,’ but they seem to be very close to one another,” Dolph said. “We had to sort of manage it just because of the sheer carnage.”
The panelists also noted that while World War II veterans were welcomed home to celebrations and praise, Vietnam veterans returned to a charged political environment, often attracting criticism for events outside of their control.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s most damaging for some of these people’s psyches,” Throneberry said. “That you did everything you were told to do, you did it the best you could, saved as many people as you could possibly save, and you were still just a piece of garbage to some people when you got home.”
Though receiving backlash for their service was upsetting, Dolph said many veterans also felt conflicted and confused regarding the politics of the war.
“Many of us were indifferent about the war,” Dolph said. “Many of us frankly opposed it.”
Panelist Skip Davis said since people were discouraged from speaking out about their war experiences, many veterans repressed their feelings and memories.
“When I got back home, I didn’t come home to any parades, no pat on the back. … Several days later I applied to go work for the Detroit Edison, and I learned from that day to compartmentalize,” Davis said. “I had my work, I had my family, I had my working out and conditioning, and never once did I unlock everything that was in my braincase.”
Though most veterans came back and were able to start new jobs, get married and lead relatively normal lives, the panelists said they were encouraged to repress their highly impactful wartime memories from Vietnam.
“The old vets of World War I and World War II believed that if you didn’t talk about it, you’d forget it,” Dolph said. “They’d actually tell you that: ‘If you don’t talk about it, we’ll forget it.’ Well, sometimes you can’t forget it. So, I think it’s good to talk about it.”
After 30 years of near silence, the panelists said veterans have begun to share their stories and publicly support each other. While limiting conversation of Vietnam War experiences may have created the illusion that most people have forgotten, many veterans are now healing through more open discourse.
“I still kept everything locked down in my head up until a few years ago one day when everything crept up,” Davis said. “It was time for me to go seek help. I actually got help at the (Veterans Affairs) Hospital, and pretty much am aligned with a support group of Vietnam vets.”
Throneberry said modern technology has made reconnecting with fellow veterans increasingly possible.
“The camaraderie part actually came later,” Throneberry said. “As much as I hate social media, this is where it came from, because you were finally able to connect with these people 40, 50 years later.”