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.
Veterans of America Foundation Web Site
Bobby Muller Biography
Hi everyone, welcome to the chat with Bobby Muller, president of
the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.
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.
Bobby is here with us now, so get ready to chat!
What's the mission of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation?
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
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,
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.
would you go to Vietnam if you knew then what you know today?
Muller: I would not have gone to fight the war if I knew
what I know now, back then.
'Nam vet, what are we supposed to be doing?
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.
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
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.
how were you wounded in 'Nam?
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
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?
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.
have you been following Mr. McCain's revisitation to Vietnam? Any
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
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.
think the film Born on the 4th of July was an accurate portrayal
of someone with your injuries?
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.
Vietnamese people view America favorably?
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.
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?
you treated when you came back to the United States?
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
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)?
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.
think the lack of respect upon returning was do to the fact that
this was the first war on our televisions ?
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
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.
do you think of those who refused to fight?
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
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.
is your war over ?
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.
those of use that aren't financially well-off do that? I want to
Muller: Vietnam has become a popular tourist site that
with some planning can be visited relatively cheaply.
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.
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.
does your organization help Vietnam vets?
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.
what percentage of the soldiers would you venture a guess, wanted
to be in Vietnam? i.e. enjoyed what they were doing?
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.
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.
could go back in time and stop the war from happening, would you?
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.
you think the U.S. government should do something to help all of
those affected by Agent Orange - both Americans & Vietnamese?
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
agree that the generation of children of Vietnam vets have been
affected by this due to the amount of negative treatment our fathers
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
Vietnam rebuilt since the fighting?
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.
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.
they educate us on PTSD before it destroyed our marriages and homes.
been trying to get into ANY PTSD camp for the past 18 years - I
still have problems; what is the hold-up?
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.
could tell your children only one thing about the Vietnam war what
would it be?
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.
think they was a lot of race problems in Vietnam?
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.
old were you when you took part in the Vietnam War?
long did you serve in the military?
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.
were you stationed?
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.
was the one thing that helped you through this whole situation?
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.
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.
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.
Bobby, see ya - we enjoyed it.
That's all for now - good-bye, and thanks again - you helped make
this a great chat!
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