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Donnah Connelly
Richfield, Minnesota, USA

Still Stigmatized After All These Years: A Veteran's Wife Speaks Out...By Donnah Connelly

A few days after America remembered the 25th Anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam War, I remembered another anniversary of my own.

On May 3, 1996, I married my soulmate Tim -- the kindest, most considerate, most wonderful man in the world! This might sound corny, but I really do love him more today than I did on our wedding day. In fact, I can't say enough nice things about my husband. Too bad so many other people don't feel the same way.

My husband, you see, is a Vietnam Veteran with POst Traumatic Stress Disorder. Oh, now you get it. I married an unlovable, screwed-up vet with PTSD, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Yet you'd be surprised how many intelligent men and women actually make this unfair assumption. You'd also be amazed at the intensity of prejudice they still direct to men who have survived Vietnam.

FYI, in the simplest terms, PTSD involves experiencing the trauma of a traumatic event -- including rape, accident, natural disaster, or, in Tim's case, war -- after the event has taken place. Think of it as a physiological condition that imprints and haunts survivors. Although no universal cure-all exists, this condition can be successfully managed with a variety of accepted medical, psychological, and holistic therapies. Thanks to indifference and misunderstanding, however, PTSD has become an unwanted stigma for all Vietnam Veterans.

Of course, simple truth can sweep away these fears and misconceptions. PTSD in itself doesn't mean insanity. PTSD is a treatable condition. Furthermore, not everyone who encounters trauma experiences PTSD. Not everyone with PTSD is a war veteran; not all war veterans experience PTSD, either. Unfortuantely, many people assume that all Vietnam Veterans have PTSD. Then they automatically assume that PTSD means these veterans will explode into killing machines.

Now ot might be true that some Vietnam Veterans have killed people. It should also go without saying, of course, that not all killers have PTSD and not all Vietnam Veterans are killers -- or, are going to kill you in the near future. As obviously simple as the truth might sound, though, some people still don't get it.

All I have to do is casually mention that Tim went to Vietnam, and the mood of any social gathering dramatically changes. Friendly, interested people abruptly stop talking to us. They literally move far away from us. They shun him for being a Vietnam Veteran. They shun me because I married him.

No, they don't cryout, "Vietnam Vet! Run for your lives! He's gonna kill us all!" They don't have to say anything. Their body language, with their uncomfortable movements, frighted facial expressions, and cautious silence, says it all. They're afraid. They're very afraid. Now here comes the funny part: Tim was an Army medic. So, this "screwed-up vet" I married never killed anyone in Vietnam or elsewhere. He only saved countless lives. Like other noncombant veterans, he proudly served his Country without firing a shot. Not all war veterans are combat veterans, but try explaining that to suspicious, prejudiced minds.

Contending with their irrationality is like dealing with the dumb kids from civics class who missed the big unit on "Prejudice: Understanding and Overcoming Stereotypes." Only now, they're dumb adults who refuse to admit they're prejudiced against Vietnam Veterans. They're not comepletely to blame, either. Their erroneous thinking never gets challenged. Their prejudice keeps getting encouragement and reinforcement from America's media and popular culture.

No wonder Vietnam Vets are now the number one choice to play "bad guys" in murder mysteries, miniseries, movies, even TV sitcoms. Too many Americans refuse to give up their ambivalence for Vietnam and its surviving participants. They refuse to accept survivors of the most unpopular war in American history as courageous. Instead of gving these veterans the respect they deserve, they would rather keep punishing them.

Think about it. Why has it become politically incorrect to keep casting minorities as villains but okay to keep vilifying Vietnam Veterans in countless news, movie, and television productions? Because the media reflects popular culture, and popular culture reflects this cornucopia of fear, ambivalence, and prejudice.

So the reality of John McCain's heroic epic of prisoner of war keeps getting replaced by this other reality, the one that prejudical attitudes have created. Goodbye, hero, Hello, you poor, stupid sonovabitch.

Too many Americans want to accept this stereotypical image of Vietnam Vets as poor, dumb lowlifes who thought their tour of duty would be a cushy three hour cruise, complete with Ginger and Mary Ann. As if they only went to Southeast Asia for fun and profit!

For nearly three decades, my husband Tim has been trying to challenge these stereotypes by trying to educate the suspicious, prejudiced minds who keep the myths alive. But nobody likes being challenged. Nobody wants to be educated about pet prejudices, because everybody needs a pet. Some people still can't comprehend that Tim's Army life in Vietnam resembled Dana Delaney's selfless service in "China Beach"-- not the adventurous stuff from the "Rambo" movies. They want to brand him as the shameless killer who destroyed lives. Then, when they realize he was -- and is-- the nice guy who saved lives, they become angry at him. They acutally resent him for being living proof tha their judgements about veterans are inaccurate and inhumane.

They don't even realize how much they want to turn him and other Vietnam Veterans into scapegoats. They only know they need villains, and by God, are they ready to vilify. I couldn't begin to list all the indignities Tim has suffered throughout the years. You've probably heard stories like these before. When the stories involve someone you love, though, things like injustice and bigotry take on new meaning. The incidents seem so senseless, so bizarre.

One coworker who'd learned Tim had been to Vietnam started taunting him with, "Baby killer! Baby Killer!" In reality he helped deliver and care for several Vietnamese babies. I asked him, "What did you say when she said that?"

"Nothing.", he said.

Although it took decades before he was fully compensated for his disability, some of his own relatives still consider him worse than a welfare recipient, because Tim now reveives disability benefits. They regard him as a lazy slob, a do-nothing, because he is disabled. They didn't want to go to Vietnam, and they didn't. But Tim did. Now that he's not a toothless, homeless vet living in a cardboard box, they're actually jealous and contemptuous. They even told him, "You never have anything to warry about. The government's been taking care of you all your life." If you have ever dealt with the VA you'd know that shrimp who eat their young can sometimes take better care of things.

And don't let me get started on the Minnesota State Veterans Home.When Tim stayed there it was a run-down, unsafe building full of pests and vermin. And I don't mean the bugs and rats. At least they could become pets. No, I mean the administrative staff and those overpaid state officials who were running that third-rate residence hall. I mean the same guys who built new offices with a talking elevator for themselves--not the veterans--as soon as funding arrived for building improvments. Meanwhile, the poor veterans who resided at "The Home" had to stay in a condemned building...until they were evicted and sent to another old building. Then Tim moved on p to a smaller, "remodeled" linen closet.Besides numerous health violations, Tim and the others had to deal with an uncaring staff. One elderly veteran choked to death on food because no one was around to assist him. Other, older veterans were physically and verbally abused by a state employee. Tim and a friend repeatedly complained. Nothing was done until another state employee caught the aide in the act of punching a bedridden veteran. Ironically, even when my husband and his friend had been proven right, the director still continued to denouce them as "troublemakers." The newsletter Tim founded to inform and alert residents of these things was seized and taken over by "The Home." Administrator accused his publication of "being too negative." Almost overnight state employees replaced truth and freedom of speech with crossword puzzles, silly jokes, and inspirational sayings. Positive things, real positive. Not only were residents like Tim misled into thinking "The Home" would be a safe place where there rights would be respected, they were also required to sign a contract -- without being given any opportunities to ask questions and to inspect the housing and its grounds. Most outrageous of all, veterans were expected to turn over 85 per cent of any monies that they got-- any paychecks, social security and veterans benefits, pensions, monetary settlements, everything--to "The Home" to pay for room and board-- at best, for their substandard existence--for as long as they resided there. That's right. 85 per cent. This huge amount might have been justified had the Minnesota State Veteran's Home actually provided residents with things initialy promised in the contract. Needless to say, all kinds of promises were illegally broken or denied. But now, years later, long after Tim left the Home, even after the State Statute of Limitations has expired, The Veterans Home is still demanding money from Tim. And the Department of Revenue is helping, too. The Home can't legally take Tim to court for the money because the Statute of Limitations has expired on the case. But hey, that isn't stopping The Home from confiscating every income tax return or every rebate with Tim's name on it. What really frightens us is that so many people in power know about it, yet they refuse to help us. The State legislator and aides, A U.S. Senator, and his staff, the State Department of Revenue, and others--they all know, but they just don't care. Even the local media refused to get involved. After all,Tim's only a Vietnam Veteran. Oddly enough, all Tim ever wanted was respect. That was all. As long as the stigma of Vietnam and PTSD remains, he'll never get it. America..what a country. America wants it children to live and die for it. Then it rewards them by stigmatixing them as the New Children of Cain.

Kids, remember this next time uncle Sam wants you to lay down your lives for one of his patriotic causes. He's the best uncle in the whol, wide world, but does he ever have a sick sense of humor.

Of cource, if your child or brother or husband isn't the one who's been unjustly labeled, you probably only think about Vietnam Veterans three times during the year. Maybe on Veterans Day, Memorial DAy, or Independence Day, and maybe for just a few minues. then you'll forget. Try to remember, please try to remember, that for some people, Vietnam will never be over.

Happy Aniversary, Tim
I love you.

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