Ted Roberson had a layover in Baltimore last September as he and his Army unit were traveling back from Afghanistan to Forest Park. As he got off the plane, the 22-year-old military police officer and his fellow troops were greeted by lines of cheering people, including a group of Boy Scouts who gave the veterans high fives.
Joe Byrnes, a retired Forest Park Deputy Police Chief who is now 65, joined the Air Force in 1965, at 19. When he returned home on leave, after a year in Vietnam as a translator, he wasn’t greeted as warmly. “Some people,” Byrnes recalled, “called us baby killers.”
The times, they have a-changed. Despite disillusionment by many with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most soldiers returning home today are lauded as heroes, not derided as “baby killers.” Roberson said that even people who are against the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan thank him for his service.
Another difference is the job picture for returning veterans. Many veterans did struggle to adapt to civilian life after returning home from Vietnam, only to be met with insufficient assistance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but it was still easier to find work then, Byrnes said. He had a job five days after being discharged in 1969.
Today, the nation’s unemployment rate hovers at 9.1 percent, and it’s higher in Illinois, at roughly 10 percent; that being said, it’s difficult for almost anybody who is unemployed to find a job.
Roberson complained that employers don’t give enough credit to service men and women for what they learned in the military. Roberson, for one, has considerable leadership skills: As a staff sergeant, this 22-year-old was responsible for training numerous Afghan troops, and leading and managing other soldiers and civilians.
“A lot of employers are looking for people with college degrees,” he explained. “The experience I’ve gained in the real world should be worth more than that of somebody fresh out of college, because I’ve already shown that I can do the job.”
As much as their experiences differ, however, the two veterans have a few things in common. One is the feeling of being misunderstood.
Byrnes said that anti-war protestors in the 1960s accused Vietnam vets of killing children. “What the protestors didn’t realize,” he said, “is that many of us coming back were kids ourselves. We were teenagers.”
Byrnes said many dissenters in his day seemed to overlook the fact that the country’s leaders were the ones who put the nation at war, not the GIs.
“Don’t blame us,” he said. “We’re GIs. We’re told to go and this is what we do. We go.
“You do what you have to do to survive,” he added.
Roberson agreed with his elder serviceman, and pointed out that military personnel take an oath to defend the constitution and obey orders.
Both vets also said that they were proud of their service and felt that they were doing a good thing in Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan. Both also said their sense of mission came not from whether they agreed with the reasons for war, but on the impact they had made on the people with whom they worked.
“I worked with a lot of Afghan soldiers. I think that my working with those guys made a difference for them,” Roberson said.
Likewise, Byrnes worked with many Vietnamese people. “I got to know them and how they felt,” he recalled. “They wanted to be free. They didn’t want someone dictating to them how to live. I felt pretty good about my service.”
Roberson said that part of what made re-entry into civilian life difficult for him is the self-centeredness he discovered in his peers, when he returned home.
“In the military,” he said, “there’s a lot of respect based on what you’ve done and where you are in your rank. I had a lot of responsibilities as a non-commissioned officer. What annoys me is the lack of respect from some of my peers. I think I have a better grip on reality. Many 18- to 25-year-olds run around like they’re the most important thing in the world.”
Both also agreed that all that most veterans want from civilians is to be thanked for their service.
“The nicest thing,” Roberson explained, “is to meet someone on the street and have them say ‘Thank you’ when they learn that you served overseas. Especially with older veterans it doesn’t happen enough.”
Byrnes added, “On Veterans’ Day you have to remember those people who defended the honor of our country, our way of life and our freedoms. I’m proud of what I’ve done in the military. I am proud of all these kids who are in the military now, because without them we couldn’t be sitting here and having this conservation now.”
Nick Moroni contributed to this article