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  Revisiting Vietnam
Bobby Muller

On April 28th, Robert O. (Bobby) Muller, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, joined us live online to talk about the Vietnam War and its legacy, and his own experiences as a wounded veteran.

Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation Web Site
Bobby Muller Biography

Chat Moderator: Hi everyone, welcome to the chat with Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Bobby Muller: Hi everybody, this is Bobby Muller. I look forward to answering any questions you have. I am a former Marine infantry officer, served in Vietnam in '68 and '69. I am a paraplegic, as a result of gunshot wounds.

Chat Moderator: Bobby is here with us now, so get ready to chat!

Audience Question: What's the mission of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation?

Bobby Muller: Our mission is to address civilian casualties of conflict through rehabilitation and assistance programs. We also work on the campaign on land mines and to address the changing conduct of war, which has become a slaughter of innocent civilians around the world.

Audience Question: Mr. Muller, what is your goal as president of the V V A F ? What role does this association play in keeping history alive in the educational system, if any?

Bobby Muller: I led the first group of Vietnam veterans back to Vietnam in 1980. We now run programs in Vietnam and we are the only veterans' organization running such programs there.

Audience Question: Bobby, would you go to Vietnam if you knew then what you know today?

Bobby Muller: I would not have gone to fight the war if I knew what I know now, back then.

Audience Question: as a 'Nam vet, what are we supposed to be doing?

Bobby Muller: It may be hard to understand the difference between how you think and how you feel. I really felt animosity towards the Vietnamese even though I felt the war was wrong. It wasn't until I went back to Vietnam after the war, that I came to look upon the Vietnamese people differently. Clearly, most veterans have not had the opportunity to redefine their relationship to the Vietnamese people as I have. Virtually every single veteran I know that has gone back to Vietnam has benefited significantly from that experience and has let go of the emotional baggage so many veterans have carried from the war.

Audience Question: Mr. Muller, speaking of the land mines throughout the world, was your association linked in any way to the foundation that recently won the Peace Prize and that Princess Diana was associated with?

Bobby Muller: Our organization was the cofounder of the Nobel-winning campaign to ban land mines. We also coordinated the work of the campaign through the realization of an international treaty in 1997 and the campaign's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. It is an honor we are very proud of. The land mine still defines the principle work of our organization today.

Audience Question: Bobby, how were you wounded in 'Nam?

Bobby Muller: I was wounded 31 years ago tomorrow by a bullet that went through my chest, punctured both lungs, and severed the spinal cord on its way out. I had the good fortune of having medical evacuation helicopters available that brought me to the hospital ship "Repose" literally within minutes of being wounded. Nonetheless, they wrote in my medical records that if I had arrived one minute later I would have died. A lasting result of the injury is paralysis from the chest down. But believe me when I tell you: I have no sorrow over the injury. But rather great joy in still being alive.

Audience Question: What is taking so long to normalize relations with Vietnam? For example, wouldn't it be easier to find our MIAs using our own ambassador and not a third country's ambassador?

Bobby Muller: The process of normalization with Vietnam was dealt a tremendous setback by President Reagan in focusing on our war dead and casting in political terms the issue of accounting for the missing. After the president profiled the issue, Hollywood and other interests capitalized on public sensitivity and in my opinion, exploited our war dead for commercial and political reasons. That has been the major stumbling block to realizing reconciliation from the war.

Audience Question: Mr. Muller, have you been following Mr. McCain's revisitation to Vietnam? Any comments ?

Bobby Muller: Senator John McCain has done more to bring about the normalizing of US-Vietnam relations than any other person in America. What makes that ironic for me is that in the mid-'80s, he was the only person that I recommended to the Vietnamese not be given a visa to visit their country. The reason I suggested he not be granted the visa was because he was so angry towards the Vietnamese because of his wartime experience. I didn't trust that I was I called "the magic" of visiting Vietnam would be enough to overcome the strength of his anger. It was.

After he returned to Vietnam, he went through a change of heart and led the effort to normalize diplomatic relations. That doesn't mean that he has forgiven those personally responsible for the murder of his comrades and for the brutal treatment that he himself received. But he has looked favorably on the Vietnamese in the larger picture by urging us all to put the war behind us.

Audience Question: did you think the film Born on the 4th of July was an accurate portrayal of someone with your injuries?

Bobby Muller: My favorite Oliver Stone movie was Platoon. I had the ability to reunite Stone with 13 members of his platoon from Vietnam in 1987. It was amazing for these guys to get together and literally watch them reconstruct battle scenes that were depicted in the movie Platoon. I also really liked Heaven and Earth by Stone, although it was not a particular success commercially. My least favorite was Born on the Fourth of July. The movie featured Ron Kovic, who is someone I was in the hospital with. The movie didn't make sense in critical ways, and was inaccurate enough for me to have a problem with it.

Audience Question: Do the Vietnamese people view America favorably?

Bobby Muller: When I first went to Vietnam in 1981, I was afraid the people in Hanoi would have protests over our presence in their city. To the contrary: when they found out we were Americans everyone - and I mean people on the street - were gracious and welcoming. In my experience, the Vietnamese people have no problem with the American people, including the veterans. They constantly say they resent our former leadership, Nixon, Kissinger, McNamara, and Johnson. They view us - the soldiers - as also being victims of the war.

Audience Question: As a non-American, I don't understand the glorification of the veterans. Do you understand that a lot of people want to stress the other side of your actions?

Audience Question: How were you treated when you came back to the United States?

Bobby Muller: The veterans were totally ignored in this country for years following the end of the war. We were the symbol of the war and we were its legacy. Both were very negative. It wasn't until 1981 that the American public started to pay attention to the Vietnam veteran. I believe this was because of the returning hostages from Iran receiving a welcome that was so contrasted from the one that we received as Vietnam veterans that people something had to be done. The other factor was the hostage situation made clear that we had a role within the world community and to try to figure out that role meant talking about Vietnam

Audience Question: Someone mentioned earlier about being spit on. I was one of those spit upon in Chicago and San Francisco airports - how can I understand that (as a native American)?

Bobby Muller: The example of veterans being spit upon is often raised. It really did happen. A lot of people in this country did not separate the war from those who were called upon to fight it. This is outrageous, especially when you remember the average age of a combat soldier in Vietnam was 19. People now no longer put the burden of moral responsibility for Vietnam on the backs of those who were drafted to fight it. I think it's fair to say that while the veterans were ignored for years, the public finally did come around and gave them a fair measure of respect and public support.

Audience Question: Do you think the lack of respect upon returning was do to the fact that this was the first war on our televisions ?

Bobby Muller: I think the lack of respect for Vietnam veterans was because the war was viewed as immoral and not simply because it was televised. Some did argue that when all was said and done, it was still the veterans that had gone into the villages and killed the women and children. To those who would argue that I would say, "While the veterans may have pulled the trigger, you paid for the ammunition."

So get off your moral high horse and recognize the difference between the war and those who were sent to fight it." I had an infantry company of Marines. Of the 155 Marines we did not have two with high-school diplomas. So bear that in mind.

Audience Question: What do you think of those who refused to fight?

Bobby Muller: I have no problem with those who stood in opposition to the war and refused service. The fellow who runs our humanitarian projects here at VVAF served 26 months in federal prison for refusing induction. Those that were true to their principles I think are the ones who have the least problems with what they did during those troubled times.

I do have a problem with those who ducked the moral issue that was presented to our generation. who felt they had an obligation to do one thing, but for reasons of personal expediency did another.

Audience Question: Bobby, is your war over ?

Bobby Muller: My war is over. It ended in 1981 when I was able to return to Vietnam and replace those time-frozen images with new ones. It ended when I was able to replace those negative emotions derived from war with new feelings about the Vietnamese people. I would truly urge as many veterans as possible to return to Vietnam and gain the same benefit that I and literally all the other veterans I know have gained as a result of a return visit.

Audience Question: How can those of use that aren't financially well-off do that? I want to go back.

Bobby Muller: Vietnam has become a popular tourist site that with some planning can be visited relatively cheaply.

Audience Question: Is there anything you suggest that might help the U.S. recover from this war? It appears we're more emotionally affected by it than the Vietnamese.

Bobby Muller: America still needs to deal with the Vietnam experience. But that will be very hard to do because of the continuing division within our generation about the merits of U.S. involvement in Vietnam : I have lectured at many colleges and have found a stunning lack of knowledge about the war and what happened around it in tearing apart our country. I don't know how we can get our more recent history better represented educationally and culturally but we should continue to try.

Audience Question: How does your organization help Vietnam vets?

Bobby Muller: Our organization grew out of the Vietnam-veteran movement in the late '70s. I started the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in 1978. It is still the only Congressionally chartered organization for Vietnam veterans in this country. It led the fight for veterans' benefits and services - from establishing the vet centers to Agent Orange compensation to a revised GI bill. VVAF worked in support of that agenda for many years. Today our work is focused more on other civilian victims of war and issues surrounding the conduct of war, such as the use of indiscriminate land mines.

Audience Question: Mr. Muller, what percentage of the soldiers would you venture a guess, wanted to be in Vietnam? i.e. enjoyed what they were doing?

Bobby Muller: Let me give you some facts which you might find surprising: Two-thirds of those who served in Vietnam enlisted as opposed to World War II, where 2/3 were drafted. People remember the end of the war but forget the early years, '64, '65, '66, '67, when public support was high for our involvement in Vietnam.

There were more U.S. Marine casualties in Vietnam than there were U.S. Marine casualties in all of the Second World War. When I was in training as a Marine officer, they told us 85 percent of junior officers were casualties in Vietnam. I went to the field with seven other lieutenants - all of whom were medivac'ed as a result of combat before me.

You could argue that the high percentage of enlistments in Vietnam was because of the inevitability of the draft which is true. However, many of us at the time in the earlier years of the war actually felt an obligation to serve and that should not be forgotten.

Audience Question: If you could go back in time and stop the war from happening, would you?

Bobby Muller: The only recurring nightmare I ever had after Vietnam was that I would wake up on the morning of the day I was going to get shot and could not stop the events from unfolding. Obviously all of America learned a lot more about Vietnam after years of involvement than we knew when we got started over there. We've learned it's easier to start a war than to stop one.

One of my favorite statistics is: in 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing. Ten years later in 1974, that figure dropped to 34 percent. Our war experience redefined the relationship between our citizenry and our political leadership and institutions of government, something which we still feel the effects of today.

Audience Question: Don't you think the U.S. government should do something to help all of those affected by Agent Orange - both Americans & Vietnamese?

Bobby Muller: When we started our return visits to Vietnam in 1981 Agent Orange was very high on our list of concerns. Our first dealings were with Ho Chi Minh's personal doctor, who was very concerned about the long-term effects of dioxin. As our work proceeded, the Vietnamese clearly backed away from this issue.

We came to understand that this was money over principle. The Vietnamese export significant agricultural products. They were concerned that their food crops and aqua products would be viewed as contaminated because of dioxin. They are more recently willing to raise the issue of Agent Orange damage again. Since we compensate American veterans for a broad category of diseases, based on their exposure to dioxin, I feel there is an obligation to address the other victims - the Vietnamese.

Audience Question: Do you agree that the generation of children of Vietnam vets have been affected by this due to the amount of negative treatment our fathers received?

Bobby Muller: There is no question that the veterans themselves were not the only ones affected by the war. I have spoken to too many spouses and too many children of veterans not to appreciate the spill-over of emotional damage the war experience involved. A very interesting fact brought out in a national study in 1980 was that the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans never spoke of their war experience after their return home. You cannot take those extreme emotions brought about by war and think you can simply bottle them without there being harmful effects.

Audience Question: Have we really gotten smarter than our fellow Americans 30 years ago and would question and perhaps defy our government if they attempted another action like this, or would enough people jump on the patriotic bandwagon to make the majority the minority?

Bobby Muller: I think that we have learned from the Vietnam War. It taught us that it is the people themselves who must determine who and where we fight. People are now very sensitive to this issue. Of course, we not only have to remember Vietnam, but we have to teach our children the whole history of our involvement there. That is the only thing that will keep us from reliving that tragic time again.

Audience Question: I am new at this - I am an English teacher and would like to introduce juniors to some literature, music, and movies for a Vietnam unit. Any suggestions? Also, I'm reading The Things They Carried, by Tim O' Brien. What do you think as far as literature for Vietnam?

Bobby Muller: I think that Tim O' Brien is a very good fiction writer on Vietnam I would recommend Going After Cacciatto as a good starting point. I think that it is important to read history about the war also, such as Stanley Karnow's Vietnam. That is an excellent book and a good history.

Audience Question: How has Vietnam rebuilt since the fighting?

Bobby Muller: Vietnam has rebuilt very slowly. When we were there in 1981 Vietnam was very dependent on the Soviets for support. They used the Soviets as a model for their economy, a model which failed miserably. The fact that the United States led an international economic embargo until 1994 further hampered their efforts to reconstruct. It should also be remembered that Vietnam was invaded by China in 1980 in response to Vietnam's defeat of the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. The combined security needs and economic and political isolation made Vietnam's recovery very difficult.

Audience Question: Why didn't they educate us on PTSD before it destroyed our marriages and homes. I have been trying to get into ANY PTSD camp for the past 18 years - I still have problems; what is the hold-up?

Bobby Muller: PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, only came to be recognized as a result of the Vietnam veterans movement. I remember in 1979 being the leadoff witness in the Congressional hearing that led to the establishment of the vet centers. I recounted my own experience in a veterans' hospital, when the psychologists wanted to know how I related to my mother while at the same time they ignored my expressions of political action against the leadership that brought about this tragic war, and my deep feelings of betrayal by my country and my society for abusing my trust and the lives of so many of my friends.

It was the rap groups that grew out of Vietnam Veterans Against the War that became the model for the vet centers and a different way to treat PTSD among the veterans. I think the best treatment today for those who continue to have problems because of the war is to go back to Vietnam and experience it again. I know one of the highest points of my life was when I was able to scuba dive off the coast of Vietnam three years ago. I say this despite the fact that while I was diving the Vietnamese were using dynamite nearby to do their fishing.

Audience Question: If you could tell your children only one thing about the Vietnam war what would it be?

Bobby Muller: If I had one thing to say to my children about Vietnam, it would be that it is an example of what can happen when a citizenry does not exercise its responsibility in a democracy. We have to stay informed of issues of common concern and we have to demand that information and accountability of our leadership and our institutions of governance. That may seem grandiose, but I really believe Vietnam represented a failure of democracy.

Audience Question: Do you think they was a lot of race problems in Vietnam?

Bobby Muller: There were escalating race problems during the war in Vietnam. 1968, 1969 was a turning point that saw a real breakdown along racial lines even in the field. This was within the context of what became an unraveling military as the debacle became clearer.

Audience Question: How old were you when you took part in the Vietnam War?

Audience Question: How long did you serve in the military?

Bobby Muller: I went to Vietnam as a college graduate in 1968; I was 23 years old. All the guys in my platoon - with the exception of a couple - were 18. I went to Vietnam directly from officer school and was retired from the military upon my return to the States because of disability.Marines represented one-twelfth of the troops in Vietnam, but more than 1/3 of the casualties.

Audience Question: Where were you stationed?

Bobby Muller: I served in the northern part of South Vietnam - just below the demilitarized zone - which was one of the most hotly contested areas in the country.

Audience Question: What was the one thing that helped you through this whole situation?

Bobby Muller: The love of my family and friends was what provided the strength and the ability to go on in the face of a lot of sadness. Family, relationships, and love are the key, not money or power.

Chat Moderator: OK, everybody, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks for joining us, and for your great questions. And, especially, thanks to Bobby Muller for being here to chat with us today.

Bobby Muller: If you want to know more about us, please check us out on our Web site (vvaf.org) and thank you very much for joining me in this discussion.

Audience Question: Thanks Bobby, see ya - we enjoyed it.

Chat Moderator: That's all for now - good-bye, and thanks again - you helped make this a great chat!

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