The Vietnam ConflictAn Academic Information Portal For Education and Research

                    -- Essays On The Vietnam Conflict --

               Myths & Misconceptions: Vietnam War Folklore 
            by Michael Kelley 
                                             July 1998

    "Carlyle said 'a lie cannot live.' It shows he did not know how to tell them."
                                           -- Mark Twain    

Myth #1:  Most Vietnam Veterans Saw Combat

Myth #2:   Living Conditions For the Average US Soldier Were Very 
                 Difficult & Uncomfortable

Myth #3:  The Average Age of Soldiers Killed In Vietnam Was 19 Years

Myth #4:  The Americans Never Lost a Major Battle

Myth #5:  Casualties Were a High Percentage of Those Who Served

Myth #6:  Black American Soldiers Suffered Inordinate Casualty Rates

Myth #7:  Between 58,000 and 200,000 Vietnam Veterans Have        
                Committed Suicide Coming Home

Myth #8:  30% of the Homeless are Vietnam Veterans

Myth #9:  Some 800,000 Vietnam Vets Suffer PTSD: Post Traumatic        
                Stress Disorder

Myth #10: Vietnam Was a War Fought By Draftees While W.W. II Was 
                 Primarily Fought By Volunteers

Myth #11: Combat In World War II Was More Intense Than In 

Myth #12: American Soldiers Were Fond of the South Vietnamese and  
                 Held a Deep Hatred for the Enemy

Myth #13: Enlisting in the Military Was a Patriotic Gesture

It is likely the American War in Vietnam produced as many myths and misunderstandings about the reality of the experience as any other war in our history.

While that may be true, it does not alter the fact these myths and misconceptions distort the truth in ways that affect the historical record and judgments formed about that war. In some cases, the distortions are of epic proportions and serve as often to discredit the reputation of the Vietnam veteran as much as they might inflate it.

From a personal perspective forged by my own life as a combat infantryman during the Vietnam War, and as tempered by over 28 years as a Vietnam Veteran advocate, I have grown increasingly perplexed by the frequent and often unchallenged bending of fact common to Vietnam war recollections and the evolving legacy of statistical data related to Vietnam veteran post-war behavior. Truth often gets lost in the shuffle and many of us remain either too complacent or too ignorant of the facts to correct the record.

It is common practice to lay the blame at the feet of the press, and certainly the media can shoulder its fair share of blame for its frequent failure to verify what are obviously exaggerated and preposterous claims yet broadcast as fact. The press should also be called to task for an equally disturbing predisposition to
seek its material from lips of the most gaudily dressed and vocally demonstrative individuals at any gathering of veterans.

That said, the media is often only the messenger.

The sad fact is that the origin of most myths about the Vietnam experience originate among Vietnam Veterans themselves. It is also often the case that Vietnam veterans sincere in their belief of the folklore often unwittingly become its most zealous advocates and, in that sense, their own worst enemies.

Although the vast majority of these veterans are honest, hard-working and productive members of society, a fair number are also charlatans of the highest caliber. It is a fact that many who served in Vietnam but never saw combat there are ashamed of that fact even though they should not be. As a result, it is not uncommon for some to pursue self-aggrandizement through frequent embellished bending of the truth.

Understanding such behavior, however, is far less important than recognizing it.

In that regard I offer this: as a general rule, it has been my observation that true combat vets rarely talk about their experiences or embellish their stories and, in most situations, the degree of veracity of the storyteller is inversely proportional to the degree of the intrepidity which the storytellers attributes to himself. Never completely trust anyone whose war stories sound incredible in any way, or who paint themselves as heroic.

It is paradoxical of the combat experience that those who taste it rarely wish the experience on anyone, while those who do not often spend their lives in envy of those who have--the late Admiral Boorda being perhaps the most visible manifestation of this phenomenon. But whatever the psychology, truth often takes a severe beating in the bargain.

There are also more than a few phony vets who never set foot in Vietnam or perhaps never even in the military, yet know enough about the subject and how
to manipulate the press such that they emerge accomplished and well-published frauds. The vast potential of the internet, as well as the ever-growing body of published memoirs, now provide such a wealth of material that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. While on the one hand these resources help expose frauds, they at the same time arm good liars with facts
that lend authenticity to fabrication.

It is not my intent here to disparage those not involved in actual combat. We were all part of the same team and combat by itself is no measure of the effort or sacrifice of any man or woman who served in Vietnam.

It is a fact that many infantrymen saw relatively little combat (the author among them) and it is likely some rear echelon troops saw more combat and/or endured more hardship than many of us out busting the bush (though certainly in fewer numbers). But the truth is the truth, and that is all I hope to reveal.

It is an indisputable fact that the vast majority of all actual contacts with the enemy were suffered by maneuver elements (i.e., Infantry, Armor, Artillery, Aviation support and other units involved in direct contact with those soldiers out in the jungle, carrying a rifle and looking for trouble). For the Army at any rate,
it is a fact that more than 70% of all casualties were suffered by the maneuver battalions and that casualties and discomfort were much rarer among those who served in rear areas (the large, well-protected bases that littered the Vietnam landscape) than among those breaking trail in the bush.

No apology is necessary for that reality, nor will I make excuses for the fact that much of what follows may highlight the infantryman while minimizing the suffering of rear echelon support troops. The simple truth is that as a general rule, life in the rear was very much safer and very much more comfortable than in was in the bush or out in the rice paddies. There is no question about that.

Quite frankly, politically-correct efforts to gloss over the reality of what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam are wearing very thin indeed, and it is high-time we gave up the fiction and returned to some factual frames of reference.

Up Arrow Fact #1?
Most Vietnam Veterans Saw Combat:
Actually, the opposite is true; only a relatively small percentage were ever involved in combat. In fact, it is likely less than 30% of all who served there ever saw combat of any sort during their war.

Although the ratio of combat to support troops varied over time, as a general rule there where approximately 10 troops supporting every soldier carrying a rifle in the field. At the height of the war in 1969, there were roughly 540,000 troops in Vietnam. Of that total, only perhaps 60,000 were-rifle carrying, front-line soldiers. At any given point, perhaps less than 40,000 of that 60,000 were actually in the field, at risk and seeking contact with the enemy. Minor wounds, disease, R&R, leaves, training, administrative needs, rear assignments and legal proceedings kept perhaps 25% of an infantry company out of the line on a continual basis. During much of the war, Long Binh, regarded as the largest American facility, was staffed by over 100,000 US troops (that is roughly 20% of the entire US troop commitment at the height of our involvement!), of whom only a very small fraction (5-10%?) were assigned to a direct combat role. It was basically a self-contained city distinguished only from its stated-side counterparts by the lack of an underground sewage system and the miles of barbed wire that encircled it. And Long Binh was but one of hundreds of other permanent US military installations in Vietnam, several of which were similar in size and amenities. Tan Son Nhut Air Base, was the busiest airport in the world for much of the war; busier than either Chicago's O'Hare or New York's JFK. Other major bases of substantial size included Phu Bai, Bien Hoa, Pleiku, An Khe, Quang Tri, Cu Chi and the ports of Saigon, Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay, to name a few. 
At page 259 of Son Thang, An American War Crime, author Gary Solis points out that: "More than 448,000 marines served in Vietnam, although far fewer actually saw combat. One study asserts that no more than 71 percent of Vietnam veterans saw any combat at all. Combat itself may be defined on a sliding scale." Though life in the infantry was often intensely demanding both physically and emotionally, actual combat, fighting with the enemy, was actually relatively rare. In fact, on average most infantry companies made contact with the enemy no more than two or three times per month. For many, particularly those working in mountainous terrain, contact was even less frequent. Fatigue, boredom, physical discomfort and loneliness were the most common characteristics of infantry life; terror and death were only its occasional companions. 
Up Arrow Fact #2?
Living Conditions For the Average US Soldier Were Very Difficult & Uncomfortable:
Again, though conditions varied over time and by occupation, the opposite was typically the case for the majority of those who served in-country. As a general statement, it is fair to say that between 1965 and 1967, living conditions were quite primitive. In those early years of US involvement, base sites were being chosen and developed by engineers, so tent living and Spartan lifestyles were 
the rule. Once most major facilities were completed, the focus shifted to providing leisure time activities and comfort enhancements for the soldier.

For the most part, the 75-80% who never saw combat of any sort led lives comparable to, if not better than, stateside duty. In fact, it is little understood that there were a significant number of perks associated with combat zone duty not available to assignments elsewhere in the world.

A high percentage of Vietnam vets (perhaps 40%?) volunteered or even re-enlisted to remain in or return to the combat zone. Some did it over and over. Two, three and four tours were not uncommon and the author personally knows an Air Force NCO who spent six years in-country. Even a significant percentage of the infantry volunteered to extend their tours because they preferred combat life to stateside duty, though there were other reasons for extending as well, getting an "early-out" being one of them, and fear of returning being another. One added bonus was the additional $65 per month Combat Pay to which any enlisted person serving in the combat zone was entitled. Even though the majority were at much less risk than true combat soldiers, they received the same combat pay. As a general rule, advancement in rank was also much faster and much easier than in non-combat zone duty. Rules and regulations were relaxed in the combat zone. "Boot polishing," boot licking, physical training, marching drill and other military formalities were rarely enforced or as onerous as they were elsewhere. Of no small importance is the fact virtually everyone was armed and dangerous. As a result, otherwise contentious or obnoxious officers and NCOs were generally much better behaved in the combat zone. Those who risked men's lives needlessly or abused privilege of rank often found themselves at the wrong end of an M-16 or Fragmentation grenade. In fact, some 800 such "fraggings" were reported during the war, though it is likely the number was much higher. In some rare cases, rewards were offered informally for the dispatch of an officer or NCO perceived as particularly despicable. The highest rumored offering was for the life of General Melvin Zais, the commanding general of the Army's 101st Airborne Division responsible for ordering the costly and very controversial attack of Hamburger Hill in 1969. Recreational facilities were often elaborate and prolific: snack bars; steak houses, basketball courts; swimming pools, gyms; theaters, Clubs; R&R beach center (such as China Beach, Eagle Beach; Red Beach, Vung Tau, among others); BX facilities with heavily discounted items; PACEX mail-order services for all sorts of goods at heavy discount; access to extremely low cost alcoholic beverages at clubs and BXs; showers; walk-in medical and dental facilities; comfortable and sometimes air-conditioned quarters; ubiquitous U.S.O. entertainment (mostly Korean, Australian and US lounge lizard acts) and etc., etc. & etc. For those so inclined, access to the world of sexual pleasure was effortless, cheap and far removed from the normal constraints of family and neighborly influence. At the height of the war for example, over 56,000 registered prostitutes were working alongside US troops in Saigon alone. That is 56,000 not including the amateurs! For those so inclined, access to high quality, extremely low cost drugs (including alcohol) was abundant and of low risk. Dealing could be a very lucrative avocation; and even when discovered, punishments were generally lighter than elsewhere. Finally, for those possessed by even more relaxed moral standards, a strong bug of free enterprise and access to US supply depots, black market trading was a very busy and rewarding sideline. Some US personnel even sold stolen weapons on the black market, weapons that eventually ended-up in the hands of the enemy.
Up Arrow Fact #3?
The Average Age of Soldiers Killed in Vietnam Was 19 Years
This widely accepted urban myth probably owes its life the popular song, "Nineteen" released in England during the 1980s. According to the Department 
of Defense Combat Area Casualty File (CACF), the actual average age of the war's 58,000+ dead was 23.11 years. Given that that group represents a very substantial statistical sample, 23.11 is probably quite close to the average age
of all who served in Vietnam.

Up Arrow Fact #4?
The Americans never lost a major battle:

This myth owes its origins to semantics and ignorance more than rational analysis. It completely ignores the fact the enemy waged a guerrilla war dependent on hit-and-run tactics designed to avoid US overwhelming fire superiority. Proponents of this myth rely on the antiquated yardsticks of conventional war theory as their crutch; i.e., whomever holds the ground when the shooting stops is the victor. But viewed in the light of the actual tactics employed there, it is fair to say the Americans lost many battles.

While it is true that US troops held the ground at the close of most battles, the enemy ordinarily chose the moment of disengagement after exhausting any strategic importance the site may have held. And, more often than not, the battlefield was abandoned by the Americans within hours of the enemy's withdrawal. The enemy almost always surrendered territory as soon as it had exploited its full potential for punishing, embarrassing and frustrating US troops.
In Vietnam, Victory might best be measured by whether a force achieved its objectives in any given operation. On those terms, the NVA/VC may have succeeded much more often than the Americans; consider the fact that 85% of 
all contacts were initiated by the enemy. Even measured in conventional terms, the Americans lost a significant number of battles. The first major engagement 
of the war in the valley of the Ia Drang River, November 1965, involved a staggering defeat at clearing called LZ Albany. There, an entire US battalion of 
the 1st Cavalry Division (2d/7th Cav) was virtually annihilated when it stumbled into an NVA regiment. Of 400 men in the US unit, some 155 were killed and 121 wounded in just a few short hours of combat. Victory was certainly not on the lips of any American lucky enough to survive that conflagration. Other battalion sized losses were suffered by the Marines in 1966/67 near the DMZ. On July 2, 1967, during Operation Buffalo two companies of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines were ambushed by an NVA regiment. Only a single platoon of the eight engaged survived to tell the tale. It is unlikely many of those few men considered themselves victors. Company and platoon sized losses were quite common throughout the war, and since most of the war was fought at the company and platoon level, it seems fair to say the enemy won its fair share of battles. It is also true that more than a few heavily defended US firebases were overrun and left smoldering by sharp enemy strikes lasting only a few hours. In those attacks, the NVA/VC often succeeded totally in their objective. 
Up Arrow Fact #5?
Casualties were a high percentage of those who served:
An estimated 2.7 million men & women served in the combat zone. DOD figures indicate that about 58,168 died there and 303,678 suffered wounds. At face value, these figures suggest that roughly 2.15% died in combat and 11.2% were wounded.

Closer analysis provides a somewhat different picture. Of the 58,168 who died, about 10,475 were listed as non-hostile, i.e. the result of disease accidents, homicides and etc. Therefore, the actual fatality rate due to combat was closer 
to 1.7%.The wounded in action statistics are the most misleading. They suggest more than one in ten of all who served in Vietnam were wounded. The actual percentage is far less. The Department of Defense bases its 303,678 wounded total on the number (incidence) of wounds reported during the war. DOD's 
figures show 153,303 wounds (not mortal) requiring hospitalization and 150,332 wounds not requiring hospitalization. However, it is very important to understand that it was not uncommon at all for individual soldiers to be wounded two, three, four and even more times during their tour or tours in-country. In other words, the actual number of separate individuals who were wounded had to be significantly lower than 303,678. Based on his own experience, the author would feel comfortable in estimating that as many as 50% of the 303,678 awards were multiple. If that is true, then only about 151,500 separate individuals were wounded during the war. From that perspective, only perhaps 5.6% of the total Vietnam veteran population ever suffered actual wounds. The oft repeated assertion that there were no fronts and that as a result everyone was in constant danger is greatly exaggerated. Of 47,000 Battle deaths, roughly 75% were suffered by maneuver Battalions (Infantry, Armor Artillery and Aviation units attached to ground forces). After subtracting that 75% from 47,000, we are left
a remainder of 11,750 deaths that include Air Force and Navy combat pilots. Subtract the Navy's 1,631 combat deaths and the USAF's 1,739 combat deaths and the net total deaths suffered by support troops roughly approximates 8,380. Of the 2.7 million who served in the combat zone, approximately 80% were not directly involved in combat of any sort; therefore 2.16 million non-combat troops suffered 8,380 hostile deaths. That means only three tenths of 1% of rear echelon troops were killed (8,380 divided by 2,160,000 = .003) by hostile action.
Up Arrow Fact #6?
Black American Soldiers Suffered Inordinate Casualty Rates:
Overall casualty rate statistics do not support this assertion. Table 12 of the US Census Bureau's 1999 Statistical Abstract of the US (on the Internet at: tells us that between 1960 and 1980, Blacks Americans expressed as a percentage of the total US population averaged approximately 11.13%. According to the Combat Area Casualty File (the "CACF," available on the Internet at:, a comprehensive database that allows the user to search the entire Vietnam Wars casualty data in by any field or combination of fields one might care to employ, the numbers are: Of the entire 58,177 who died in Vietnam, including both officers and enlisted men, 86% were Caucasians, 12.5% were black, 1.2% were other races. According to CACF data: 7,265 was the total number of Black American deaths, which is 12.5% of the total dead (CACF "Race" field entry is "N" with all other fields blank) 17, 672 was the total number of Draftee deaths (all races), which is 30.4% of the total dead (CACF "Component" field entry for Selective Service is "Y" with all other fields blank) 2,387 was the total number of Black Draftee deaths, which is 13.5% of total Draftee dead ("N" in CACF "Race" field plus "Y" in "Component" field with all other fields blank). By contrast, in the introduction to his widely-circulated and well-regarded, Bloods-An Oral History to the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, author Wallace Terry states that "In the early years of fighting, Blacks made up 23 percent of the casualties." While that assertion may or may not be true, Mr. Terry does not specify what he meant by the early years of the war, nor does he cite a source for that claim, so it is impossible to verify its accuracy. Terry goes on to say that by his return to Vietnam in 1969, as a reporter with Time magazine, "Black combat fatalities had dropped to 14 percent, still proportionately higher than the 11 percent which Blacks represented in the American population. "In other words, where Terry implies that somewhere between 14 and 23 percent of all combat fatalities in Vietnam were suffered by Black Americans, but the truth of the matter is that the actual overall total percentage was 12.5%, a figure only slightly higher than Black Americans' average 11.13% percentage of the US population during the same period. What is more, though it is widely believed by many, including Terry, that Black Americans were inordinately "victims" of the Selective Service System (the Draft), the actual data shows us that 13.5% of all Draftee deaths were Black Americans, a figure only slightly greater than their percentage of the US population. (Frankly, the author expected that percentage to be higher but is thankful the actual percentage suggests that institutional racism was not woven into the fabric of the military as much by the Draft as some claim it to have been.) According to the Combat Area Casualty File, 50,273 enlisted men (those other than officers) were killed and distributed by race as follows:        

  White Black  Native American   Asian  Unknown



7,115 219 343 106
% 84.52% 14.15% .044% .068% .021%

During the war, Black Americans comprised roughly 12% of the US population and Whites 80.3% (the term Caucasian or White includes all Hispanics here). Although the Black casualty rate was slightly higher than their percent of population, in some respects it is surprising the disparity was not much greater. In the 50's and early 60's, the US military was regarded as one of the few American institutions offering real opportunity to the poor and disadvantaged of the era, and our Black poor embraced that potential in numbers reflecting their disadvantaged economic position in our culture. As a result, Blacks may have comprised as much as 20% or even more of Army personnel at the start of the Vietnam War and their participation steadily edged downward to about 15% of the military by 1971 (a reduction likely the result Black Americans' growing disenchantment with the war and the perception of a disproportionate burden being shouldered by Blacks). What is perhaps most interesting about the Black American casualty rate in Vietnam is not that it was slightly higher than their percent of the US population, but rather that it was actually lower than the
overall percentage of Blacks in the military
. - 12.5% of the total deaths versus
an estimated average of between 15-20% of the military for the period
1964-1973. It is also a fact that Whites suffered a higher casualty rate than their percentage of the military - 84.52% of the casualties v. approx 75% participation in the military). It is the author's belief that the disparity reflects the fact that for economic reasons, a high percentage of Black Americans enlisted (rather than being Drafted) for longer enlistments and the job opportunities those longer enlistments offered. In other words, by enlisting, one could gain access to training and jobs apart from the Infantry and the dangers it entailed (if drafted, there was perhaps as much as a 90% likelihood an assignment to the infantry and its exponentially higher casualty risks would result).

It is also true that the apparent disproportionate Black casualty rate experienced in the early years of the war reflected many factors other than racism. For one thing, it reflected the fact that at least prior to 1967, Black Americans volunteered for infantry and airborne units at much higher rates than their percentage of population. In other words, while their casualty rate may have been disproportionate at first, that fact reflected their actual representation in the infantry and airborne, not that they were being pushed to the fore of combat while non-Blacks were being held back.

Why Blacks were so disposed may have its roots in cultural norms of the era where manhood and machismo were important measures of respect in Black 
and Hispanic cultures, and where the degree of risk taken was an important yardstick. It should come of no surprise that in the higher risk professions of the military, many people of every color often thought they would find the respect of their peers and their own self respect as well.

While machismo may have been a significant factor contributing to high percentages of Blacks in the combat arms of the military, it is important not to dismiss genuine patriotism as well.

It was certainly the case that many Blacks joined the infantry and airborne units of the US military out of a true sense of patriotic zeal. In fact, most of the men who fought in Vietnam grew up in the John Kennedy era, an era in which
patriotism and genuine concerns for duty, honor and country were instilled in 
and professed by many of those who served. The pervasive cynicism and turn
toward the "me first syndrome" that infected later generations did not exist to any significant degree early in the war, and for those who did not live through that era, I am certain it is very difficult to understand or appreciate just how significant those influences were between 1962 and 1968.

While Black Americans may have Drafted in numbers somewhat disproportionate to their percentage of the population at the beginning of the war, draft reform reversed that inequity starting in about mid-1967. In the early 60's, students entering college became eligible for student deferments and, until reform measures were enacted, could enjoy their 2-S deferment almost without restriction as long as they remained in college. When the obvious inequities were quantified, public outcry resulted in a revamping of the Selective Service system 
in '67, after which college deferments were vigorously limited and regulated. 
It would seem reasonable to conclude that Selective Service laws were not intentionally designed to discriminate against Blacks, or any other minorities, as some have argued, because in my opinion the early Draft disparity was more the result of economic rather than racial bias. Draft laws simply favored the wealthy. CACF searches were further refined to explore the ratio of hostile versus non-hostile deaths among Black Americans to see if there might be any disparity in that category. Of the 58,177 Vietnam war dead listed in DOD stats for the Vietnam War located on the Internet at:, 10,799 Americans are 
said to have died from non-hostile causes such as accidents, normal mortality, murder, suicide and so on. That is, roughly 18.56% of our war dead were recorded as having been the result of non-hostile causes. The CACF file was 
then searched by Race "N", and for each category of non-hostile death causes, with all other fields blank.

"CASTYPE": The CACF categorizes casualties primarily as hostile or non-hostile in the "CAS1" field (and further within each type in subsequent CAS2 and CAS3 fields). For the primary "CAS1" field, in sequential searches, C1, C2, C3, D5, and D6 were entered per the following listed categories found in the CACF.txt descriptive legend linked within the CACF search page. The results of each search are also listed:
C1 = NON-HOSTILE, Died Of Other Causes = 1,079
C2 = NON-HOSTILE, Died Of Illness/Injury = 287
C3 = NON-HOSTILE, Died While Missing = 178
D5 = NON-HOSTILE, Missing, Returned = 0
D6 = NON-HOSTILE, Now Missing = 0

Total NON-HOSTILE, Black American deaths = 1,544

Black American non-hostile deaths expressed as a percentage of total non-hostile deaths is then 1,544 divided by 10,799, which yields a figure of 14.56%, where the expected figure should approximate 18.6%.

What that finding means, is difficult to say. It does seem to suggest that Blacks may have been exposed to combat slightly more than non-blacks, but then other non-malicious factors contributed to that circumstance as discussed above.

It is also curious to note that Asian Americans suffered casualties far below their percentage of population. That may have been the result of cultural influences limiting Asian American interest in the military and of a conscious military policy to limit their exposure in the combat zone. It is my understanding the military was concerned American Asians might be mistaken for the enemy by our own troops and made a conscious effort to limit their assignments to jobs within the combat zone (Caution: possible myth in its infancy?). Oddly enough, the most blatant discriminatory aspect of Draft is often simply overlooked altogether. It is 
a fact that only men were required to register for the Draft and subjected to conscription. Sexual discrimination then was both total and socially acceptable during the war.
Up Arrow Fact #7?
Between 58,000 and 200,000 Vietnam Veterans Have Committed Suicide Coming Home:
Though it has been widely reported that more VN veterans have committed suicide than died in the war, not a shred of verifiable data has ever been published to support such a preposterous assertion. What scientific explorations of Vietnam vet mortality have been undertaken all indicate the Vietnam vet suicide rate is only very slightly higher overall than that occurring in the general population. Since 1967, roughly 603,200 male suicides have been reported in the US. If the 150,000 Vietnam vets suicide figure were accurate, then fully 25% of all male suicides in the US since 1967 have been committed by Vietnam veterans! One in four male suicides in the US since 1967 has been a Vietnam Veteran, even though Vietnam veterans constitute only 2% of total US male population. Males commit 85.1% of all suicides in the US, and if the mythical rate was true, then 1% of the US population is committing 21% of all suicides. In that case, one of every five suicides in the US would be a Vietnam Veteran. Do either of these estimates seem plausible? The National rate of suicide is about 1.11% of all US deaths. The mythical rates of popular folklore tell us the VN vet suicide rate falls somewhere between 15% and 50% of all VN veteran mortality. The in-country suicide rate for US Army personnel during the war was reported by the Department of the Army as nine tenths of 1% (.934 of 1%, actually). A major, 1987, CDC study of Vietnam era mortality concluded that VN vets suffered a 17% higher mortality rate than non-Vietnam era vets of the same age, but only during the first five years after returning from the war. After the first five years home the rates were the same. In separate reviews of the CDC's findings, the American Medical Association and the New England Journal 
of Medicine both concluded that during the first five years after returning from the war, VN vets were 65% more likely to commit suicide than individuals of the same age group in the general population (both also noted the rate dropping to the national rate after the first five years). The national suicide rate was 1.11% of all deaths at the time and therefore the indicated suicide 
rate (1st five years only) for VN vets was 1.83% of all VN vet deaths
(simply 1.11 x 1.65). Veterans Administration disability claim data appears to indicate that as of 1996, a total of roughly 363,000 VN vets (including those KIA) had died from all causes. The mythical rates would have us believe somewhere between 20% and 50% those deaths should have been from suicide. Even if the VN vet rate had remained constant at 1.83% of all deaths since the war, the AMA/NEJ/CDC predicted total would be less than 13,000 as of 1997. Patients of the VA Veterans Outreach Program (provides psychological counseling to VN & other vets), some of the most emotionally damaged survivors of the war, suffer 
a suicide rate that almost precisely matches the national 1.11% of all deaths rate. In 1997, the Australian Department of Veteran's Affairs published a comprehensive report on Vietnam veteran mortality (Mortality of Vietnam Veterans - The Veteran Cohort Study available on the Internet at: that covered all Australian male Vietnam veteran deaths from the end of the war until December 31, 1994. It is perhaps the most important study of Vietnam veteran mortality to date. This exhaustive study found nothing to suggest that the risk of suicide was higher among its war veterans than among the general male population. Of particular interest is the fact the Australian researchers were able to identify the entire Australian Vietnam veteran population (59,036) and to verify the current status of 57, 231 of those veterans! Of that 57,231 total, 3,840 died during or after the Vietnam War. Those figures are of great importance because they show the total mortality of Australian Vietnam veterans between 1965 and December 1994 was 6.71% of that population (3,840 divided by 57,231); our first, clear, hard and direct look at an actual Vietnam veteran population's overall mortality. Applied to our own 3.1 million Vietnam veteran population, the Australian data suggests our total mortality (including KIA) should have been about 208,010 veterans as of January 1, 1995. Subtract the 58,000 KIA and the indicated total of US Vietnam veterans who died after returning from Vietnam would be only 150,010 as of that date. If the Australian experience reasonably mirrors our own (and it is difficult to imagine why it would be significantly different) and the 150,000 suicide total is fact, then 100% of all US Vietnam Veterans deaths are the result of suicide and of no other cause. Application of the Australian Cohort Study data to our own VA's 363,000 total mortality estimate suggests a US total of 10,781 suicides. When applied to its own predicted total of 150,010 US post-war Vietnam veteran deaths as of January 1, 1995, it suggests a total US Vietnam Veteran suicide figure of only 4,455. There is unwarranted arrogance in the presumption trauma is the exclusive property of the combat soldier. Trauma is prevalent at all levels of society, and civilian life is laced with tragedy and violent death in doses comparable to, if not greater than, that of the combat soldier. In 1967 alone, for example, deaths by car accident in the US about equaled the total number of US troops who died in ALL of the Vietnam war! In 1990 alone, 38,866 Americans died of gunshot wounds (accidental and homicide), while in 1995, more than 20,000 were murdered by firearms alone. Either figure is greater than the number of US soldiers who died from gunshot wounds in ALL of the Vietnam War, where only 18,452 died from that cause!

Up Arrow Fact #8?
30% of the Homeless are Vietnam Veterans:
There should be serious doubt regarding the veracity of this oft repeated but otherwise unsubstantiated claim. Like the suicide myth, it appears to owe its origins more to folklore than fact.

Its inherent flaw is the vague and widely varying definition of the word "veteran." The press tends to regard anyone who served in the military as a veteran. That is an incorrect and misleading usage of the term in its formal sense. Technically speaking, to be a Vietnam veteran, one must have served within both the geographical and chronological boundaries specified in the Presidential order defining the Vietnam combat zone. Unfortunately, it is common to hear the terms "Vietnam vet" and "Vietnam era vet" used interchangeably. The former saw service in the actual combat zone (and is therefore a Vietnam veteran) while the other merely served in the military outside the combat zone during the same period. Now it certainly may well be that 30% of the homeless at one time served in the military, but to suggest 30% of the homeless are "Vietnam veterans" is another matter altogether. And while I have little doubt 30% of the homeless might claim to be Vietnam veterans, their motives for doing so may reflect the desperate nature of their circumstance more than their allegiance to the truth. 
No doubt some hope the tag will be rewarded with sympathy and support of one form or another. That is simply a matter of survival. Consider also this: just how could such a statistic ever be accurately measured in the first place? Do the homeless routinely carry their military discharge papers (DD-214 form) in a back pocket? That seems highly unlikely. But how else could any researcher be certain such a claim was truthful unless a DD-214 was available to verify the claim? 
It would be wise to scrutinize any report of homeless veteran status. Ask how 
the word "veteran" was defined for the study and also how veteran status was verified. While the author has not conducted any serious study into this particular topic, he was nonetheless able to find the text of a comprehensive, 1996, New York State study on the internet that yields some surprising statistics that should disquiet the notion that 30% of the homeless are Vietnam Veterans.

The site is located at:
and is entitled:

"New York State Division of Housing & Community Renewal - Consolidated 
Plan - I. Housing and Homeless Needs Assessment

In Exhibit 11, Homeless Statistics Compiled from Local Consolidated Plans, can 
be found the appendix "1995 Homeless Subpopulations." Item number 7 of that appendix provides a compilation of veteran homeless statistics for New York City:

"7. Other (Homeless Veterans)

Of the total single homeless population in New York City (6,492), approximately 17% (1,075) are veterans. The men's single shelter system in New York City establishes the veteran population to be approximately 20 percent (1,056) of the total population. The women's single shelter system, also in New York City, recognizes 
a veteran population of approximately 2 percent (19) of the total. 
A recent report from Westchester County indicated that, as of November 30, 1995, 711 homeless single individuals utilized the County's emergency shelter system, 149 or 20 percent of whom were homeless veterans."

Note that the total veteran homeless population in 1995 for NYC was estimated 
at between 17%, and 20% of all homeless. That 17%-20% range embraces the entire veteran population, including anyone who served in the military in peacetime or in any prior period of war, including WWII, Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War and so on.

Certainly Vietnam Veterans represent something less than the total number of homeless veterans in New York City based on those who claimed to be veterans, so for a fact, in 1995 at any rate, the Vietnam Veteran population in NYC was had to be significantly less than 17%. Just exactly how much less than 17% is difficult to say, but if we presume that for all practical matters the WWII and Korean War vets are too old for the homeless lifestyle and make up only a very small fraction of the total, then we can make a better guess.

The approximate ratio of Vietnam Era veterans to actual Vietnam veterans is roughly 4 to 1, or in other words, Vietnam vets are about 20% of all those who served in the military during the Vietnam war. If the entire 17% figure unearthed by the NYC study had included only Vietnam War and Era vets, then we could estimate that something less than 4% of the homeless in NYC were Vietnam Veterans at that time.

But it is also true that 17% figure includes all military veterans from the period between 1973 and 1995, another 20 years of Americans who served in the military" It would seem fair to speculate that given what we know, the total number of Vietnam vets that were homeless in NYC back in 1995 might even 
be less than 2%!

Up Arrow Fact #9?
Some 800,000 Vietnam Vets Suffer PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • 800,000 may suffer PTSD, but whatever the trauma might be, for most 
    of those it could not have been the result of combat.

  • Estimates are that less than 400,000 Vietnam veterans served in the Infantry and the Infantry suffered the vast majority of all casualties and serious trauma.

There is unwarranted arrogance in the presumption trauma is the exclusive territory of the combat soldier and therefore combat stress is the source of most PTSD. Trauma is prevalent in all levels of society and civilian life is laced with tragedy and violent death in doses comparable to, if not greater, than that of the combat soldier. In 1967 alone, for example, deaths by car accident in the US equaled the total number of US troops who died in ALL of the Vietnam war!
In 1990 alone, 38,866 Americans died of gunshot wounds (accidental and
homicide), while in 1995, more than 20,000 were murdered by firearms alone.
Either figure is greater than the number of US soldiers who died from gunshot
wounds in ALL of the Vietnam War, where only 18,452 died from that cause!
It would seem fair to speculate that PTSD is probably as common to civilians as
it is to soldiers. 

Up Arrow Fact #10?
Vietnam Was a War Fought By Draftees While W.W. II Was Primarily Fought By Volunteers:
Oddly enough, the opposite appears to be true. About 70% of those who died 
in Vietnam were volunteers, while roughly 70% of those who died WWII were draftees. (only 17,425 of Vietnamís 58,000 KIA were draftees). 

Up Arrow Fact #11?
Combat In World War II Was More Intense Than In Vietnam:

It is likely true that combat during WWII was on average much more intense during the actual period of time individual units were exposed to combat. However, overall casualty rates and duration of individual exposure to actual combat were higher in the Vietnam than WWII.

Overall casualty rates in Vietnam were actually 2 1/2 times greater than those suffered in WWII.. 92 Army & Marine Infantry Divisions fought in WWII. They suffered an average of roughly 1,600 battle deaths per division. Roughly 10 Army and Marine Divisions fought in Vietnam and averaged 4,600 deaths per division. Most WWII American Infantry division combat time was less than one year. In fact, the combat exposure of most US units can be measured in months rather than years. Consider the fact that, with the exception of the North African/Italian campaign, American units did not enter the war in Europe until June, 1944, and that campaign was over by June 1945. Apart from a few Army Divisions which fought for more than a year in the Pacific, actual combat exposure during the Marine island hopping campaign between 1942 and 1945, is measured in months. While extremely violent an bloody, fighting in WWII was restricted to relatively short periods of time. The United States Marine Corps in the Pacific during WWII was in actual combat for a period of less than one year (<200
days?) and suffered fewer total casualties than it did during the 5-6 years it
was in Vietnam. 

Up Arrow Fact #12?
American Soldiers Were Fond of the South Vietnamese and Held a Deep Hatred for the Enemy:
It is by no means my intention to offend readers of Vietnamese ancestry, but some of what will be discussed here may be very unpleasant for them hear. 
What will be said are generalizations based on my actual observations of American soldiers attitudes and behavior in Vietnam. There were exceptions 
to these generalizations certainly, many exceptions in fact, but this report is an honest attempt to quantify what I saw and experienced first hand.

Before serving there, most US personnel had little or know idea where the country was located on the globe, much less knowledge of its peoples' cultures  and customs. Fewer still had even the faintest familiarity with its political, military and social history. That ignorance was compounded by the military's serious failure to provide substantive training in that regard. The average Infantry soldier had perhaps a total of one or two hours of training in Vietnamese culture or history. Still others had no training whatsoever about the country they would be living and fighting in for at least a year. As a result, Americans attitudes and behavior reflected and were disfigured by an abysmal ignorance of the Vietnamese peoples.

Sadly, I would have to say that most US troops developed a fundamental distrust and dislike for the Vietnamese in general; North or South Vietnamese, it did not matter which. The resulting coarse, boorish, often arrogant and superior attitudes evident in the US soldier also did little to endear them to the Vietnamese. I think it fair to say the Vietnamese developed a justifiable contempt for the Americans in return.

Opinions held by US troops regarding ARVN soldiers were almost universally negative, if not outright hostile. Vietnamese Army training was relatively poor and officers gained rank more as a function of wealth and political influence than of skill. As a result, ARVN troops appeared lazy and incompetent by US military standards and relations between the two forces were uneasy at best. In fact, on more than a few occasions each intentionally took the other under fire. For the most part, the ARVN avoided contact with a religious fervor and was extremely timid in closing with the enemy once escape was no longer an option. That lack 
of aggressiveness frustrated and infuriated US troops. Many US soldiers still today hold the ARVN in great contempt because they appeared unwilling to fight for the things we held precious; the things we thought we were there to help them accomplish. In many instances, ARVNs, RFs/PFs simply refused to engage the enemy and would let US forces take the brunt of an engagement whenever possible. Exceptions have been noted by US troops who served and lived with ARVN units for extended periods, but by and large, the ARVN was a poor fighting force by any standard we knew how to apply. South Vietnamese government officials were generally despised by the average soldier. Corruption was prolific and thinly disguised. It was apparent to us that much of the government was motivated more by greed than any desire for freedom or national pride. In many instances, it seemed apparent that South Vietnamese officials and the general population were playing both ways, waving the South Vietnamese flag in one hand and the NLF flag in the other. On the other hand, while the average US soldier may not have liked the enemy, most had a grudging or open respect for their fighting abilities, courage and determination. Many of us were in awe of the hardships and punishment the enemy (particularly the NVA and main force Viet Cong) endured in fighting their war. It was apparent to most of us that these men and women were exceedingly courageous, tenacious, resourceful and actually believed in their cause. By contrast, the ARVN troops appeared to possess none of those attributes and that startling contrast put serious questions in our minds about our participation. More than a few of us carried the uneasy feeling the US had gone in on the wrong side of the fence. Sadly, an underlying current of racism and superiority often governed our attitudes and behavior toward the Vietnamese. That unfortunate circumstance often colored our relationship. It also led to many misunderstandings, stupid mistakes and in some cases to very tragic consequences.

I will leave this topic with an example of humor typical of the period and widely circulated among the US enlisted ranks: "To end this war, all we have to do is put all the South Vietnamese on boats in the South China Sea and then nuke the two countries to a cinder. Then we sink the boats." 

Up Arrow Fact #13?
Enlisting In the Military Was a Patriotic Gesture:
It is common knowledge that many minor (and more than a few major) criminals were given a choice between jail or military service by judges familiar with the rehabilitative qualities of military life. Apart from that aspect of "voluntary" service, the least understood and most under-reported aspect of the war is that many men enlisted in the military in order to escape combat. That is right, joined the military to avoid combat!

To some extent, that reality helps explain the high rate of voluntary service throughout what became a very unpopular affair.

One way to accomplish that feat was to join a National Guard or Reserve unit, only a handful of which were ever called to active duty during the war. A more common strategy was simply to enlist for three, four or six years of active duty 
in order to qualify for specialized jobs that would keep a soldier out of direct combat. That did not mean a soldier would be spared from serving in a combat zone, only that his MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) would keep him out of the shooting. After experiencing actual combat in Vietnam, it was also not uncommon for, frightened, sobered or burnt-out infantrymen to re-enlist or extend their tours in order to qualify for safer, rear area job. Draftees were obligated only two years of active duty, and the military was understandably reluctant to invest significant resources in training men who would only be on the job for such a short time. According to Ronald H. Specter, DOD stats reveal that a draftee's chance of being sent to Vietnam "were never less that 50% and sometimes as high as 80%." Perhaps 90-95% were assigned to Infantry units no matter where they were sent. Infantry training simply required the smallest investment and had the highest turnover rates of other specialties. There was little doubt about it, if someone who didnít want to be a soldier allowed themselves to be drafted, the Infantry and its attendant high risk of death and injury would be their lot. Such people could either avoid the Draft by whatever means necessary, or, they could enlist in the military in order to drastically minimize the odds of becoming an Infantryman. Having been in the Military and having served in Vietnam is not necessarily a measure of one's patriotic fervor. There were probably as many cowards and charlatans in uniform as there were in the peace movement.

                                 -- End Of Article --
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By Michael Kelley
Email: Myths Essay

                       Copyright © Michael Kelley. All rights reserved.

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