When he returned from Vietnam, Michael L. Higgs would awaken from nightmares “in cold drenching sweats.”
He would go outside to sit in a lawn chair in the yard of his parents’ home and smoke. Sometimes he would be joined in silent understanding by his father, who as a medic during the Battle of Guadalcanal also had seen the horrors of war.
When Higgs went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, he was asked if he had ever thought of killing himself. He said that he never had.
“I was dismissed,” Higgs recalled. Post-traumatic stress disorder “wasn’t even a term yet," he said.
The importance of righting the wrongs done to past veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era, was a theme of Rockville’s Veterans Day ceremony on Friday, which included at a wreath-laying ceremony and 21-gun salute by members of Rockville’s American Legion Post 86.
Higgs, who delivered the featured speech during the ceremony at , recalled the hostile reception he received from civilians upon returning home.
“I had no debrief, but I would like to have known that to wear my dress blues into a bar might be dangerous,” said Higgs, who served in the Navy from 1965 to 1969, including a tour as a photographer in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969.
“I never embarrassed my mother, but to discover that I was an unwelcome embarrassment to my nation made me weep,” Higgs said during his speech.
Joe Roberts recalled that when he and his friends landed in Washington state after flying home from Vietnam in early 1969, the reception they received walking through the airport caused them to go to the men’s room and remove their Class A uniforms.
“We put our civvies on and that’s how we flew across the country,” said Roberts, who lives in Viers Mill Village in Silver Spring. “[It was] almost a feeling of disgrace and embarrassment and bewilderment. We didn’t know why we were being treated that way.”
Brian Wendrick, a Vietnam-era veteran who grew up and still lives in Rockville, recalled those days when, he said, “you couldn’t even walk into a bar with your uniform on without risking the chance of a confrontation.”
Now, as members of the Nam Knights of America, a motorcycle club of military and law enforcement veterans, Wendrick and Roberts work to honor the memory of fallen veterans and to pay them the respect that was not often afforded to veterans of their era.
Members of the Nam Knights, clad in their motorcycle jackets, stood a few feet from their motorcycles observing Friday’s ceremony.
“Being Vietnam veterans and Vietnam-era veterans we work very hard to erase some of the injustices that society left our Vietnam or returning Vietnam veterans with,” Wendrick said.
That includes participating in the community and reflecting a positive image of the Nam Knights and of veterans, he said.
Larry Drayton, a Nam Knights member from Gaithersburg, served two tours in Vietnam. Like Higgs, Drayton said he tried to assimilate when he returned home.
“When I returned, I took off my uniform and assimilated back into society as we knew it back then and did not discuss my veteran status, my military status with anybody who didn’t know who I was and where I’d been,” Drayton said. “So the rejection, trauma and all the other negative aspects that a lot of returning veterans legitimately had … I just didn’t experience that because I did not want to become a part of that.”
After his return stateside, Higgs said that he remained uninvolved with any veterans’ organizations until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now, he is commander of the Disabled American Veterans Rockville Memorial Chapter 12, an officer in the Maryland DAV and a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Elks and the Vietnam Veterans of American.
“You should get involved,” he told attendees at the ceremony.
Because of the efforts of Vietnam veterans “our nation has opened its arms” to returning veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Higgs said.
That’s true, said Mike Alves, a soldier in the Army for 20 years and Nam Knights member from Glen Burnie.
“As a current military member, I can say that my life in the military, whether it be deployment or any type of assignments, has been easier since the Vietnam War,” said Alves, 37. “Due to their sacrifices, due to their hardships, now PTSD exists. So it’s been huge to us."
Unlike when he enlisted, soldiers today are less likely to feel compelled to “work through the pain,” that results from combat injuries, Alves said.
“If it wasn’t for [Vietnam-era veterans], we wouldn’t get the standing ovations in the airport, the USO wouldn’t be what it is today, the medical care wouldn’t be what it is today,” he said.
The Nam Knights are dedicated to honoring the sacrifices of Vietnam-era veterans by making sure today’s veterans are treated differently, said Pete “Sleeper” Rauner, the president of the Nam Knights of Maryland’s Free State Chapter.
“I think the main theme of the Nam Knights is we’re not going to let any veteran today experience the way we felt when we served during our time,” said Rauner, who enlisted in the early 1970s and also lives in Viers Mill Village. “Because we’re patriotic—we’re patriots. And the feeling you get being a patriot and being rejected by your own society still messes with a lot of the heads of a lot of us. And we want to make sure that that doesn’t happen to this generation.”