“The number one shared problem for veterans,” says former Marines Lt. Bobby Muller, “is how do you screw your head back on when you come back to society after having fought in a war.”
Speaking before a crowd of Bryant University students at a program entitled “Understanding the Readjustment Challenges of Returning Veterans,” Muller told the audience that coming to terms with memories of the disturbing and horrible experiences of war is difficult enough, but is only a part of the challenge.
The equal or greater challenge for veterans, he believes, is returning to a society that too often cares little and knows less about the sacrifices they and their comrades have made.
“When people ask you what it was like, the first few times you might answer them,” he says. “But you learn, real fast, that people don’t really want to hear it – they’re uncomfortable and they’re disturbed by it. You learn to shut up.”
Muller is the chairman and co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and a co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize. While serving in Vietnam in 1969, Muller was shot while leading an infantry assault. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
But Muller declares fiercely that it wasn’t his experiences while fighting that made him the “angry, loud-mouthed guy” he is today, but the aftermath.
Muller says that his first-hand exposure to the slipshod handling of veterans’ physical and mental injuries and a general public apathy toward examining the causes and consequences of the war were the affronts that converted the duty-bound soldier into a political activist.
IT took a year in a VA hospital for Muller to recover from his near-fatal wounds – a year that caused him to re-evaluate his feelings about himself and his country.
Conditions and morale at the hospital were so poor that eight men in his ward, including Muller’s best friend, committed suicide.
“I had been a Marine officer, leading men, calling in air strikes, calling in artillery and fire support from the battleship New Jersey – I am God,” he said. “Then I become a veteran, and I’m a throwaway.”
After earning a law degree from Hofstra University, Muller dedicated himself to improving treatment of veterans. He says that at the outset, he had no concept of the nature of the problem, believing that he simply needed to raise awareness of the situation.
“I was naïve enough to believe that if I explained what the problem was, America would respond,” he said. “I believed that if I made my arguments and couched them in terms of justice, and fairness and equity, the Congress would respond.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” he says.
Through years of lobbying and cajoling, Muller and others eventually made headway in improving the situation. He says that a major victory came in 1980 when the mental health community recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a legitimate mental health injury. He recalls that before that shift, psychiatry was unequipped to handle the unique needs of veterans.
During his own convalescence, he says a psychiatrist asked him what his future plans were, “and I’ll never forget what happened.”
“Her opening line was ‘what are you going to do now,’ and I said ‘I think I’ll become a political assassin and kill all the sons of bitches responsible for this war.’ Her response to that gambit of mine was to ask me about my mother.”
Standard-issue Freudian psychoanalysis eventually gave way to the advent of “rap groups,” where veterans could share their frustrations with doctors and with each other. Muller says that’s when treatment started moving in a positive direction.
BUT while attention to veterans’ issues has increased since
Vietnam, Muller says that the underlying forces behind society’s disengagement from returning soldiers have not been confronted.
“As we came away from that experience,” he says, “it turned out that the war had been the wrong war to fight and the verdict finally came in that we lost. That lack of necessity, lack of purpose, and the inability to put a meaning to our experience was like pouring gasoline on a fire.”
What’s worse, he says, is that the society has still not answered those questions.
“We never had the courage, as a people to ask the most basic question – why,” he says. “America simply turned away; Vietnam was a bummer.”
He says that although history has recorded how the nation ended up in Vietnam, the country has never fully explored why.
“We know we were lied to by the president…we know there was a failure in Congress…a failure in the intelligence community…a failure by the military… and a failure by the media, which didn’t report to the American people in a timely way what was really going on,” he says.
But having never figured out what caused these simultaneous systemic failures, he says “it’s pretty obvious we haven’t identified what the remedy is.”
FOR that reason, Muller says he isn’t surprised that the country now finds itself engaged in a conflict which bears many similarities to the one in South Vietnam.
Joining Muller on Thursday was Garett Reppenhagen, a veteran of the war in Iraq. The Army sniper believes he knows the reason that American society is remiss in answering those questions.
Despite the flags and fanfare, Reppenhagen says that he and many other veterans returning from service are dismayed at the cavalier attitude toward the war exhibited by the public and even their leaders.
“I was extremely frustrated when I came out,” he says. “And especially when I saw a clip of President Bush searching his office jokingly for weapons of mass destruction. I was in 21-gun salutes for my friends because they were out there looking for weapons of mass destruction in some of the most dangerous places known to man – they weren’t looking under desks and chairs.”
Reppenhagen says he joined the service in his mid-20s, looking for direction and purpose. Deployed first as a peacekeeper in Kosovo, he says he took pride in his service there, and took pride in his abilities as a solider.
The Army put him through “sniper school,” a series of courses taught by international special forces operatives, where began learning “how to shoot, how to stalk people, and learning the anatomy of how bullets kill people.”
When he finished the course, he was deployed to Iraq in February 2004. His purported job, he says, was to save the life of his comrades by taking the lives of their enemies.
But Reppenhagen says the nature of the fighting was much more complicated.
“I was confident in my abilities to do my job well, but I was questioning whether it was the right thing to do,” he says.
He recounts how a convoy driving through a hostile environment at night reacts to the reported sight of a muzzle flash. When one soldier senses a threat and returns fire, the entire convoy joins in.
“People in the line will have no idea what’s going on, but they start opening up with grenades, M240 machine guns, .50 caliber machine guns, using huge amounts of firepower,” Reppenhagen says.
“Then you raid the house, kick down the door, and there’s mom, dad, and their two kids. An insurgent popped off a couple rounds at the road and ran off, and we lit up a house.”
“When I killed my first civilian,” he says, “I was frustrated and angry, and it started to make me question why I was there.”
Reppenhagen says he doesn’t focus blame on himself or other
U.S. troops for using superior firepower to protect themselves. But he questions whether the American public will ever bear its share of the burden of guilt he now feels.
“Active duty personnel amount to less than 1 percent of the population,” he says. “The majority of the American public are totally insulated.”
Reppenhagen’s and Muller’s goal is to convince the nation to evaluate whether the causes of war is equal to the sacrifices it asks of veterans.
“There’s a huge unawareness of the true cost of war,” Reppenhagen says, “because so few people are sacrificing. People don’t see it in the economy, don’t see it in the taxes, they don’t see it in society. It’s only the select few that are fighting the war that are paying the cost.”