For most of us, the Christmas season is a time to spend with friends and family, but it does us all some holiday good to remember that not everybody’s definition of ‘family ‘is the same.

For many Vietnam veterans who have used the Michigan Veterans Foundation and the Detroit Veterans Center as a lifeline to bridge troubled times, ‘family’ may often be made up of those fellow vets who have likewise fallen on a challenged situation and who have formed a solid alliance to help themselves back on their feet.

Filming them on Christmas Eve, 2009, held a poignancy all its own.  It’s one of the first group of Vietnam veteran stories we’ve covered for 2010’s Detroit’s Vietnam Generation, and it is clear that the scope of the experiences will be remarkable.

Take Howard Kennedy who served as an M-60 machine gunner on a M113 Armored Personnel Carrier between 1968 and 1969.  Having been drafted after the ’68 Detroit riots, he saw the Army as a way out of difficult times affecting him both personally and within his city. 

“I was ready for a life-change,” he says. 

That change led him into a harrowing tour of duty during which he lost several close friends, then returned to a nation not quite ready to embrace his sacrifice. 

“There were no celebrations, no parades, no acknowledgement, no thank you; I just sort of came back to my old life.  And that had its own problems.”

Along with the dangers, the intense but soft-spoken 60-year-old Kennedy recalls how Motown was a huge part of his war experience.  “We were all listening to the Temptations then.  I remember how ‘Cloud 9’ played a big role in helping me understand what was going on in my life and made it a little easier to get through my tour…  We were all tuned into the music then.  It was defining our era.”

To Kennedy, the Vets Center has proven one of the most significant discoveries of his life.  “Most vets don’t even realize it’s here,” he points out.  “I didn’t.  Thank God I found it…”

Larry Foster echoes those sentiments.  The “I came back to a huge misunderstanding,” he insists.  “I couldn’t explain it then… I enlisted, that’s what I thought was expected of me, I thought it was the right thing to do.  But when I got back, I felt secluded.  I kept quiet.  I still do.  Nobody but a fellow vet  can understood what we’d been through.”

 Tyrone Chatman, Executive Director of the Detroit Veterans Center, is well aware of the issues plaguing, and being dealt with, by these Vietnam vets—he’s one himself, formerly a Specialist 4th Class in the MACV, serving chiefly in the Mekong Delta.

He’s been at the center for fourteen years, a social worker for 33.  His gentle, profoundly sympathetic  attitude is a boon to these men, many of whom have suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome since before the term was invented.

“This is a multi-service center; we offer transitional housing, food, bed linens for around one hundred vets.  Over the years, I’ve learned there as many kids of homeless people as there are kinds of people, but vets make up a special group—nearly all served with the same level of pride and distinction, completed their mission, and seeing them here is a constant reminder that the move back into society was not always an easy one.  What we were looking for after we landed back in the States, I think, was not always a heroes’ welcome or a parade, but a simply return to normalcy.  But very few folks understood what the warrior had to do to accomplish the mission.  Combat is worse than the worst nightmare you’ve ever had.  Standing fast under fire?  Having the strength to return fire? That’s something that the non-vet probably will never understand.”

Chatman sums it up:  “A lot of us came back to a country that wasn’t willing to look after us, so we’ve determined that we have to look after ourselves.  That’s my job here at the Vet Center, even after all these years… helping the vet to get back.”


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