It’s easy to look at different eras of veterans and write them off as coming a different time, a different place, a different war. The truth is, the old Vietnam Vet you met at the Legion while trying to get cheap drinks isn’t all that different from our men and women fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Toss a drink or two his way and share some stories. Life sucks in the sandbox, but things in the jungle weren’t any better. Whether you’re out to avoid the same pitfalls of their generation, find out that your struggles aren’t unique, or even joke about the military across eras — pick their brain. We could all learn a thing or two from them. Here are some life lessons you might learn:
1. Things could always get worse.
Back in Afghanistan, I thought the worst conditions imaginable were summer heat, sandstorm season, and the wash out from the week of rain. Boy, just doing a Google search of weather conditions in Vietnam put my heart at ease.
Comparing one person’s hell to another isn’t always appropriate or beneficial, but I’ll admit full-heartedly that damn-near everything from the country to living conditions to the enemy to contacting folks back home was much, much worse for our older brothers.
2. Cleanliness regardless.
If there’s one clear trait shared among nearly all Vietnam Vets, it’s cleanliness. This isn’t just a “different military back then” kind of a thing. Nearly everything from the clothes they wear to the house they live in and the weapons they take to the range: Spotless.
In war, constantly changing socks and uniforms kept them healthy, living areas needed to be spotless to keep vermin out, and their trusty rifle needed to be cleaned constantly to stay trustworthy.
3. Winning hearts and minds is tricky.
In both wars, troops are out in the middle of some foreign country, fighting an enemy they can’t easily identify. Our wars weren’t as simple as looking at an enemy dressed in a clearly distinguishable uniform fighting under a clearly identifiable flag. Winning hearts and minds isn’t so easy when you’re focusing on who’s the good guy and who’s not.
The famous counter-insurgency tactic of winning over the hearts and minds of the locals wasn’t the brainchild of modern Generals trying to get a warm and fuzzy about the war. In fact, President John. F. Kennedy started it and President Lyndon B. Johnson repeated exact phrase on record 28 times during the Vietnam War.
4. The fight against burn pits will be a rough one.
Getting recognition for health concerns over the dispersal of deadly chemicals in the air because of the negligent decisions of corner-cutting big wigs is the heart of the fight against burn pits. There’s a reason saying there is nothing wrong with burning literal trenches filled with garbage and human sh*t just feet away from the tents troops live in for 12 months is called the “Agent Orange of our generation.”
With the actual Agent Orange, it wasn’t until 1984, 11 years after the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War, that a class action lawsuit against the government for using the substance first came out. To this day, Vietnam Vets are still fighting for recognition of health concerns related to Agent Orange exposure.
5. Not everyone will thank you for your service.
Not to call anyone out or pass judgement, not having year-round veteran discounts isn’t the most disrespectful thing ever done to a returning veteran, so maybe don’t raise hell at some minimum-wage retail worker about it.
Our older brothers came home to a country that shifted cultures drastically after they were, in some cases, drafted into the fight. Until you’ve had a former childhood friend abandon you for serving, paying full price for a damn coffee shouldn’t even be on your radar.