They were once a misunderstood and rebellious generation, but their pioneering work on many issues has earned the respect of the soldiers now serving.
“When you talk to fellas and girls at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], they’re very appreciative of the stuff we’ve done,” said Rowan, who has just turned 60. “They even know of my organization, which surprises me.”
Nonetheless, the 52,000-member Vietnam Veterans of America, which last month elected Rowan national president, has been around as a force for 25 years and is the only Congressionally chartered body dedicated to those who served in the military during the war in Southeast Asia.
It has more than 600 active chapters nationwide and a staff of 38 at its Silver Spring, Md., headquarters. It also has hundreds of service representatives, many of them volunteers, who inform veterans of their rights and help them make claims if they are suffering from illnesses related to their service.
The organization’s motto, “Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another,” hints at the troubled times that gave birth to it.
Rowan said Vietnam veterans got rather different treatment from the government when they came home than those who’d served in World War II.
“You had a combination of federalism and socialism of sorts with Franklin Roosevelt who wanted the government to do something,” he said, explaining national policy during and after the war.
Low-interest business loans, no-down payment loans for housing, subsidies that facilitated the move from city tenements to suburbs and, most famously, the GI Bill, which made college education available, raised up large numbers of the 16 million veterans.
“They created a whole middle class out of nothing,” Rowan said.
A boom economy fueled by the rebuilding of Europe and Japan and the growth of the consumer society greatly helped, providing good jobs for people who’d been unemployed before they joined up.
The leadership of the previous generation was also a crucial factor. “The World War I veterans didn’t want to see what had happened to them happen to the folks coming back from World War II,” Rowan said.
The American Legion, he said, can claim the credit for initiatives like the GI Bill.
Things had changed markedly, though, by the time Rowan and his peers returned to civilian life. “GI Bill had been significantly watered down, and it wasn’t a great period to be looking for a job,” he said.
A generation gap opened up between the crew-cutted ex-servicemen who’d come back to a good job, a car and a home in the suburbs and the “whacked-out, long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-war, hippie freak veterans,” said Rowan.
“The World War II veterans didn’t understand PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] until much later,” he recalled. “They certainly didn’t understand when we started to talk about Agent Orange and what that meant. It’s much more well-known now.
“The Veterans’ Administration fought these things tooth and nail; so did some of the older guys,” he remembered.
Not that the World War II servicemen hadn’t had problems. “They didn’t talk about the guys who drank themselves to death,” he said.
They didn’t generally mention the nightmares, either. He pointed to the example of “Twilight Zone” writer Rod Sterling, a paratrooper in New Guinea during World War II, who started writing stories because he couldn’t sleep at night after he’d returned from war.
“But we were upfront about it,” the 6-foot-4 Rowan said, pointing out that PTSD was first known as “post-Vietnam syndrome.”
The political backdrop was markedly different, too.
When Rowan got back to his native Queens in New York City, the “country was going to hell in a hand-basket,” he said.
He’d gotten a compassionate discharge in December 1967 as the only child of a man dying of cancer.
The first month of 1968 — by which time Rowan was already back at his old job at AT&T — saw the Tet Offensive. And bad news kept coming for Americans throughout 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots and then anti-war riots. And drugs were everywhere, he said.
The 1960s were really the late ’60 and early 70s, in Rowan’s view. And he was in the middle of it all.
He joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “They were a bunch of people with good intentions that were trashed by the left and the right,” he said. “The FBI infiltrated them and every crazy left-wing group wanted to co-opt them. They got torn apart. It was sad because they had good things to say.”
VVAW was amongst the first to refer to the problems that veterans were having with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as post-traumatic stress, and Rowan can trace his activism on health issues to those years. Meanwhile he quit his job and began college in the summer of 1969. He ultimately got a BA in political science at Queens College and a Masters degree in urban affairs at Hunter College.
He’d made an earlier attempt at college, not long after his 1963 graduation from high school. He lasted one semester.
“I screwed it up. I hated it,” he said. Rowan grew up in an Irish-American family in Elmhurst. His father’s parents, whom he never knew, were both from Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. But his American-born, County Limerick-educated maternal grandmother, who lived until she was 96 in 1978 (the same year his mother died), provided him with the strongest connections to his heritage, and a network of cousins in Australia and Ireland.
Rowan’s father graduated law school in 1936 but never practiced. “It wasn’t a good time to find a job as a lawyer,” his son said. He worked at various jobs, before getting work with the City of New York.
Rowan Sr., though an unlikely recruit with poor eyesight and other health problems, was drafted into the military during World War II, serving for a couple years as a dental technician in Texas.
When it was his turn, his son volunteered for the air force in 1965, rather than be drafted. Because of his phone company experience, Rowan thought he might be trained in electronics. Instead, he was selected for language school in Texas. He was first taught Indonesian, but when the Indonesian military took over and liquidated the communist movement in that country, the school cross-trained everybody in Vietnamese.
“I wasn’t a hot linguist, but some of the people I worked with we’re incredible — they sucked up languages like sponges,” he remembered.
In the end, Rowan didn’t use Vietnamese much. Serving with the 6990 Security Squadron, he got a position on a plane typing in classified material others had already translated.
“We worked with SAC [Strategic Air Command] helping them direct bombing missions,” said Rowan, who lives with his wife Mariann in Middle Village, not far from his native Elmhurst
“We were able to communicate to them that they we’re being tracked,” he said of his flying missions over North Vietnam.
His overseas experience was confined to the last eight months of his military career. Some of it was spent “in country” at Da Nang, in Vietnam, the rest at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, from where crews made 18-hour missions.
The trip had lasting effects on his health. He has diabetes, the high rates of which among Vietnam veterans have been traced to Agent Orange.
“At Da Nang, it was 112 degrees. We showered three times a day in polluted water,” he said.
He was troubled by physical ailments soon after getting back. However, some of his comrades clearly had developed psychiatric problems.
“I knew more people who killed themselves than people who died in the war,” he said.
When the VVA emerged as a fully-fledged advocacy group, it was cautious about the legacy of substance abuse. “There are social aspects, but we’re pretty much against bars,” he said. Indeed, a local chapter has to get permission from the national organization to have a bar.
Rowan added to his activist experience when, after graduation, he got a job in the district office of Representative Ben Rosenthal, a New York member of Congress.
That two-year stint was followed by jobs as an investigator with the city council and later with the comptroller’s office, from which he retired recently.
The former city worker said that the 720 delegates who gathered last month for the VVA national convention in Reno, Nev., didn’t elect a figurehead.
“I’m a CEO. Although I do a lot of my work at home in front of the computer,” said Rowan, who married 18 years ago and has two stepsons, aged 31 and 28. [Both are electricians and members of Local 3 IBEW.]
“Our biggest battles right now are with Congress over health care issues and the continuation of the Veterans Administration health care program,” he said. “And reaching out to veterans, letting them know that they may be entitled to compensation if they have certain diseases.
“They’ve been telling us that we are living longer. But I know a lot of people who are dying of cancers and things,” he said. “Those who served in Vietnam are dying at a higher rate than their peers. And we think it has a lot to do with exposure to Agent Orange.
“Half a dozen of the 50-strong New York state council of the VVA have been diagnosed with prostate cancer in the past year,” he said, adding that stress is a major contributory factor in certain diseases.
The VVA president said that when they got home the veterans “got on with their lives and scraped by” despite their problems — though Hollywood is fond of portraying them as either crazed right-wing and Rambo-style nuts or addled, stumbling pot-smokers.
Rowan added that as a group Vietnam service personnel were more representative of the American working-class and middle-class mainstream than were the veterans of World War II
“There were very few people like John Kerry, who came out of a more upper-class background, running off out of Harvard or Yale to the navy or army,” he said.
These days, Rowan said, the general public doesn’t buy the movie caricatures, but rather believes: “They did their duty, and got screwed — the government didn’t treat them very well.”
The image has softened for another reason. “Now we’re old tubby guys who look more like Santa Claus than Rambo,” he said.