A 21-year-old Yale University student named Maya Ying Lin recently won the design competition for a national memorial to honor Vietnam veterans. Her plan calls for a sunken structure to be erected on a plot of land in Washington, D.C., between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. On it will be inscribed the names of the 57,692 men and women who died in the war, listed in the chronological order of their deaths, the last names meeting the first. Lin, who was 8 years old at the time of the Tet Offensive, explained her underlying idea: “Thus the war’s beginning and end meet; the war is ‘complete,’ coming full circle.”
If Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., which selected her design, think the war is over, they should travel to the Caddo Parish jail in Shreveport, Louisiana, and listen to the story of Wayne Robert Felde, a 31-year-old Vietnam veteran who spent his twentieth year in the jungles of the Central Highlands near Pleiku. It is a story that encapsulates all the problems plaguing a significant number of the 2.8 million American men and women who served in Vietnam and for whom the war goes on.
Felde was sentenced to death on February 13 of last year for the 1978 killing of a Shreveport policeman [see Lucinda Franks, “Soldier’s Pay,” The Nation, October 25, 1980]. In his statement to the court before sentencing he said: “I am not a criminal but a troubled and wrecked man. Like many other vets I know what Vietnam did to me…. Critical wounds do not always pierce the skin, but enter the hearts and minds and dreams of those that are only begging for help so badly needed.”
The members of the jury, some of whom wept during the trial, agreed with the defense’s contention that Felde’s actions in Shreveport had their antecedents in Vietnam. Nevertheless, they convicted him of first-degree murder and complied with his request that he be sentenced to death rather than life imprisonment without hope of psychiatric care. In doing so, the jury was speaking for an entire nation that does not wish to hear the cries for help of the war’s survivors.
Felde grew up in a white, middle-class family in Maryland. After graduating from high school in 1967, he planned to attend veterinary school, but he lacked the money and enlisted in the Army instead. Eager to go to Vietnam, he buttonholed a colonel in the corridors of the Pentagon and begged to be sent, even though, as the sole surviving son of a World War II veteran, he was exempt. He arrived in Vietnam in March of 1968, on the day he turned 19.
The average age of American enlisted men in Vietnam was 19. Most of them believed in the war. For many, like Felde, Vietnam was their first time away from home and their initiation into adulthood. Unlike their counterparts in World War II, whose average age was 26, who traveled to the war as a company and fought and came home as a company to a tumultuous welcome, the soldiers in Vietnam were sent off to war as individuals and, when their twelve months were up, were flown back to the United States as individuals. There was no group support, no decompression period. The psychological dislocation engendered by this depersonalized system cast a shadow on Felde’s postwar life.
A week after he arrived in Vietnam, Felde was flown by helicopter to Landing Zone Polly Ann near Kontum. He couldn’t join his unit immediately because they were away fighting Vietcong. When the helicopters returned with the casualties, he unloaded dead bodies until nightfall. The next day he joined a firefight that lasted two hours. Afterward, he and another soldier went to recover the body of their squad’s point man, who had been captured and killed and subsequently napalmed by U.S. air strikes. When Felde attempted to pick up the corpse, the legs came off. Felde vomited, then stuffed the remains into a body bag. “That’s when I started smoking grass,” he told me. “I stayed loaded the whole year I was over there. The captain smoked, the lieutenant smoked, everybody smoked. I’d get up in the morning and have a pipe with my coffee. We’d be on patrol and I’d fire up the pipe. Seven or eight times we were on patrol and men ahead of me or behind me would get shot and I’d be stoned, walking along, reading Playboy. I wasn’t paying attention. Why I didn’t get it I’ll never know.”
During his year in Vietnam, Felde saw and experienced things that even today he cannot talk about without crying or blocking out part of the memory or breaking down completely. He held the quivering intestines of a friend dying of a mortar-round wound. He watched a lieutenant perform a “gook abortion”–slicing open the abdomen of a pregnant Vietnamese woman with a machete. He participated in retaliatory raids on villages in which innocent people were killed, while the Vietcong vanished into the jungle.
He began to hate the war, especially the napalm strikes, and he grew to despise the “gooks” who killed his buddies. Because the fighting stopped during downpours, he came to love the rain–and still does. The sight of rice on a plate can trigger horrifying memories or vivid flashbacks that resemble psychotic hallucinations.
Such recurring memories used to be called “shell shock,” but the Vietnam War spawned a bureaucratic terminology–“delayed stress syndrome,” or “posttraumatic stress.” The terms denote a panoply of symptoms: devastating nightmares, depression, flashbacks, confusion, extreme anger and psychotic episodes. But their clinical impersonality obfuscates the horrors experienced periodically by half a million veterans, according to the Veterans Administration’s estimates. John Wilson, a psychologist who has studied more than 500 cases of post-traumatic stress, believes that the irruption of its symptoms among Vietnam veterans will increase, peaking in 1990.
The veterans’ psychological problems derive from the unique unpopularity of the war and the hostility many of them met upon returning home. Felde left Vietnam only three days after his platoon had been caught in a harrowing sniper attack. He was flown to Fort Lewis, Washington, where he had a four-hour layover before leaving for home. Still in uniform, he walked into town, where he was spit at and pelted with bottles. This treatment caught him by surprise, but afterward he wore his uniform as infrequently as possible. He avoided talking about the war, and did not even admit to civilians that he was in the service. His remaining time in the Army was spent as a lifeguard at Fort Dix and cleaning clogged toilets at Fort Meade. He went AWOL several times, drank heavily and was nearly killed when he wrapped his new car around a tree. He left the Army in 1970 and spent the next two years in and out of college and holding fifteen jobs (“You can check my Social Security record. I was never fired. I always quit”). He married his high-school sweetheart; the marriage lasted six months. He still could not talk to anyone about his experiences, and his mother, a nurse, suggested that he see a psychiatrist. He refused. “I was afraid to mention my problems because I thought they’d put me in the nuthouse for the rest of my life,” he said. His nightmares grew worse; once, when his sister awakened him for breakfast, he threw her across the room.
Felde’s behavior was not unusual. The most extensive study of Vietnam veterans thus far, “Legacies of Vietnam: Comparative Adjustment of Veterans and Their Peers,” which was conducted by the Center for Policy Research for several veterans’ groups in 1973 and released by the Veterans Administration last March, compares veterans’ adjustment to civilian life with the performance of nonveterans of the same age. The study found that ex-soldiers who had been involved in heavy combat, particularly those who had served from 1968 to 1974, experienced the most severe problems following their release from the service. Symptoms included lingering trauma from combat, lack of interest in normal activities, explosive anger, confusion, loss of self-confidence and nightmares about the war. While 46 percent of the nonveterans in the study finished college, only 22 percent of the Vietnam veterans graduated. According to the study:
In the first three years following release from the military white Vietnam veterans display an erratic pattern of changes in occupational level, with mean downward movement in the second year. This is a very unusual pattern for labor market entrants and provides support for the proposition that the negative effects of duty in Vietnam result from problems occurring in the homecoming period.
Nearly one-third of the veterans of heavy fighting said that the war’s impact on their lives and their emotional well-being had been decidedly negative.
Yet when these veterans left the service, they found no one to help them cope with their problems. Alone when they went to Vietnam, they were alone and alienated in a nation in the throes of antiwar sentiment when they returned. The V.A. hospitals were and still are ill-equipped to handle the psychological problems of readjustment. The Veterans Administration, like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has treated Vietnam veterans with indifference–some might say disdain. Not until 1978 did the V.A. set up “outreach” centers to handle the veterans’ psychological problems. These centers proved to be enormously helpful. Yet despite President Reagan’s revisionist view of the war as a “noble cause,” his Administration has displayed a callousness toward the people who served in Vietnam. Fortunately, its attempt to rescind funding for the ninety-one centers was blocked by Congress.
For many veterans, like Felde, help came too little or too late. In 1972, while on a drinking spree, Felde got into an argument with a co-worker. As they struggled for a gun, the man was killed. When the police arrived, Felde, screaming about Vietnam, fired shots over their heads. He finally surrendered to his mother. At the trial, his lawyer did not mention the fact that he had served in Vietnam, and Felde was convicted of first-degree murder, which was later reduced to manslaughter. After spending three years in Maryland prisons, his application for parole under the reduced charge was denied. In 1976, Felde escaped from a minimum-security facility.
By most estimates there are now about 30,000 Vietnam veterans behind bars. More than 100,000 have been jailed since the war began. The figures in the Center for Policy Research study are telling, though understated, since jailed veterans were not interviewed. Heavy-combat veterans, especially those who are white, have a very high rate of arrest: 26 percent as opposed to 14 percent for the nonveteran control group. Curiously, few veterans who had been arrested before entering the service were arrested after they left, suggesting a direct cause-andeffect relationship between combat and trouble with the law. Unlike Felde, most veterans were charged with misdemeanors. The stereotype of violent, trained killers returning to the United States was not borne out by the study. A more accurate characterization would be troubled and wrecked men ending up behind bars after years of disorientation and confusion.
After his escape, Felde spent the next two years on the run. Unable to adjust to life outside the Army or to talk about his problems, he continued to drink heavily and work only sporadically. He also sensed a deepening depression as well as physiological changes. His tolerance for alcohol dropped markedly, suggesting liver dysfunction. Only now does he think he knows what has happened to his body.
Felde fought in a sector of Vietnam that received a high concentration of the defoliant Agent Orange. Before his unit would move in, the Air Force would spray the area liberally with the defoliant, which contained the dioxincontaminated herbicide 2,4,5-T (a total of 12 million gallons were sprayed on jungle and farmland during the war), in order to destroy the enemy’s cover. Often it would take as long as a week for the trees to die. Felde remembers that his unit was once trapped without provisions and the men could find nothing to eat but boiled leaves. On another occasion he drank river water and the moisture dripping off big leaves in a heavily contaminated area. He is convinced that each time he consumed large amounts of the herbicide.
The deleterious effects of Agent Orange have long been suspected, but only recently have V.A. hospitals accepted veterans’ claims that exposure to the defoliant was the cause of a variety of complaints, including various cancers, liver dysfunctions, decreased immunity, a rash called chloracne and birth defects in their children. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of 2,4,5-T in situations where people would be exposed; dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known. Yet it took a lawsuit to force the V.A. to inform veterans that exposure to Agent Orange may have been harmful. Of the 2.4 million veterans who were probably exposed to the herbicide only 40,000 have sought help from the V.A.
That number may change, however. Last June, by a vote of 98 to 0, the Senate, following the lead of the House, passed a bill ordering the V.A. to give priority treatment to Vietnam veterans with ailments they suspect were caused by exposure to the defoliant. A panel of scientists appointed by the Federal government recently recommended that a comprehensive study of Agent Orange’s effects be undertaken. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have begun a study of birth defects that might be related to the herbicide, and several studies are being conducted by veterans’ groups.
As yet, there has been no morbidity and mortality study of veterans. But there is already evidence that Agent Orange has harmful long-term effects. Dr. Tong That Tung, a respected Vietnamese scientist, studied soldiers in the Vietnamese Army who had served in areas where Agent Orange was sprayed and found high rates of birth defects among their children, higher than normal rates of miscarriage and premature births among their wives, and a higher than normal rate of sterility. The full study will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine this fall. (Damage suits in Federal courts against the manufacturer of Agent Orange, the Dow Chemical Company, appear to have been ruled out by a recent Supreme Court refusal to review a lower court decision denying such claims. Several state courts have permitted these suits, however.)
Even if the V.A. hospitals begin to treat Agent Orange casualties, a significant number of veterans will not be eligible. Some 614,000 Vietnam veterans received lessthan- honorable discharges, and approximately half of them can be denied all benefits.
For Wayne Felde, of course, the question of benefits was irrelevant, since he was a fugitive from the law. In the summer of 1978, he surfaced. His mother was dying of cancer in Shreveport. Her death was traumatic, and only a week after she died, Felde killed a Shreveport policeman while under arrest. The incident has not yet been fully explained, but there is strong evidence to suggest that Felde, who had a concealed .357 magnum which had been overlooked by the arresting officer, was actually trying to kill himself in the back seat of the police car. When the officer tried to stop him, the gun went off. The officer was killed by an errant bullet that split on a seat spring and severed a vein in his groin.
In the past three years, Felde has made several suicide attempts. The most recent coincided with the release of the fifty-two American hostages from Iran. Upon their return there was an upsurge of patriotism. A warm welcome awaited them, and ample psychiatric care. Felde’s reaction was to slit his wrists and scrawl “White Collar Heroes” in blood on the pale yellow walls of his cell in the parish jail.
Some veterans’ groups claim that the number of suicides of Vietnam veterans is equal to the number of combat casualties. While no accurate figures are available, if one adds the suicides to deaths in automobile accidents, deaths from drug overdoses and excessive alcohol use, and deaths in which suicidal tendencies may be involved, the total might well be equal to the number of casualties in the war. A Presidential Review Memorandum from a 1978 study of suicides among Vietnam veterans found that the suicide rate for soldiers who had served in Vietnam was 23 percent higher than it was for nonveterans in the same age group.
For the present, Felde is a survivor. He has survived twelve months of fierce combat. He has survived a car crash, two struggles for guns in which others were killed, suicide attempts and massive injuries from the shotgun blasts that felled him when he was captured after the Shreveport fracas. He has lost a kidney and part of his liver, and his right leg is crippled. Alive, Felde is a reminder that the longest war in U.S. history, and the only one it ever lost, has penetrated the bones and hearts and minds and dreams of those who fought it, and that it festers still.
Felde and the thousands of other veterans who cry out for our attention are in a sense sounding an alarm for future generations, according to Robert Muller, himself a crippled veteran and executive director of the largest veterans group, Vietnam Veterans of America. Muller, who traveled to Hanoi last month with three other veterans to discuss Agent Orange research and missing American servicemen with Vietnamese officials, has said, “What drives the Vietnam veteran is not so much his own particular situation, although for some guys it’s a very stressful and difficult situation. But it’s more than that. It’s the issues that were at the heart of the Vietnam era.”
Wayne Felde’s war could end at last in the electric chair at the state prison in Angola, Louisiana. The tragedy of such an execution would be twofold. A man whose problems are rooted in service to his country would be put to death by his fellow citizens. And a voice we desperately need to hear would be silenced. If his life is ended by 2,300 volts of electricity, Wayne Felde’s name should be the last one listed on the