SALT LAKE CITY — Forty years ago, the last 2,500 U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam, ending the war.
Decades later, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and homelessness still plague many Vietnam veterans. Some got a hero’s homecoming, while others were spit on when they came home.
Jay C. Hess, of Farmington, was a prisoner of war. He flew more than 30 combat missions as an Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam and was shot down in August 1967 near the Chinese-North Vietnamese border. He was captured and thrown into the Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton.
He endured torture and starvation over 2,029 days — more than five years. When he came home, he said he got a hero’s homecoming.
“It was a big high being released from prison camps in Vietnam,” Hess said, “actually coming home and putting my foot in the door in my house — that was unbelievably high.”
He said he still tastes freedom every day.
He knows that many soldiers did not get a warm welcome home — veterans like Frank Maughan, who commanded an armored cavalry platoon and served two tours in Vietnam.
“I got spit at,” he said of his homecoming.
Some were mistreated, called bad names and put down.
“It was a disgrace,” Hess said. “When you get in a war, you ought to support it and make an effort to win it and not criticize the guys that you send into combat to do this difficult, difficult task.”
More than 58,000 U.S. troops died in Vietnam; more than 300,000 were wounded. Nationwide, there are 7.5 million living Vietnam-era veterans; a half million saw combat. Fifty-one thousand Vietnam veterans live in Utah.
Maughan received a Purple Heart after a grenade sprayed him with shrapnel.
Hess and Maughan said things have changed since the Vietnam War. The change in attitude toward the military and veterans can be seen at airports, Hess said. When he travels, he sees a lot of crowds at airports welcoming soldiers and Marines home and thanking them for their service. More people also understand what soldiers are dealing with when they come back from war.
Today Maughan is the chairman of the Utah Veterans Advisory Council. Over the last few decades, treatment of Vietnam veterans has improved, in part thanks to the hard work of Vietnam veterans. He wants to make sure that younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan do not run into the same problems his generation of veterans did.
His organization works to make sure that veterans know about their benefits they are entitled to.
“We are bound and determined that we are going to do everything in our power to prevent the kids coming home from who knows what horrors, from being tempted to do away with themselves,” Maughan said.
They are concerned with suicide prevention and PTSD because those are problems their generation has had to deal with.
At age 58, Maughan has suffered from PTSD. He said it took him five years to work through the issues and to feel better.
“When I was deep in PTSD, I would wake up at night with night sweats and nightmares. The Fourth of July and the 24th of July here locally, were awfully reminiscent of the combat sights and sounds that we experienced,” Maughan said. “They were hard things to get through, but you know, we did it. We didn't beat our wives. We didn't take guns and assault civilians or schoolchildren because of the efforts of our generation to make sure that those who have those problems would have an outlet.”
Utah has two veterans nursing homes right now, and two more slated to open in southern Utah later this year.
Hess said he's not a pacifist, but his war experience leads him to believe our country needs to work harder at diplomatic solutions instead of sending the military to try to solve problems.
Maughan feels that while the country has learned of the difficulties faced by veterans, the government has not learned from the past.
“We see the same dumb mistakes being made in Afghanistan,” he said. “They were made in Iraq. I thought it was sheer stupidity that Richard Nixon said on such and such a day there will no longer be any combat troops in Vietnam. In hindsight, it was sheer stupidity. Unfortunately we made the same mistake in Iraq, and we are making the same mistake in Afghanistan.”
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc