“I have two children, they are now 38 and 37. There is no way either of them would go in the military,” John Jones, a medical corpsman in the 1st battalion, 69th Armored Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War, told Newsweek.

“They came to their own conclusions,” he added. “I’ve never talked to my children or my wife about what really happened over there—and I took them back to Vietnam; we went to the firebases where I was and we still didn’t really talk about it.” He said he has discouraged others from joining.

Several major branches of the U.S. military are currently missing their recruitment targets by thousands of new sign-ups. A recent poll suggested a majority of American adults would not be willing to serve were the nation to enter a major conflict.

When Newsweek published a report on the situation last week, experts painted a complex picture of why people were seemingly less tempted by a career in the military: a new generation with a different outlook; a tight jobs market; and unhelpful depictions of the armed forces in mass and social media.

A Vietnam War veteran wipes rain water from the name of a soldier from his unit on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day, May 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C. One who spoke to Newsweek suggested the treatment of veterans had dissuaded people from military service.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

But this wasn’t the whole picture, and since then, several Vietnam War veterans, including Jones, reached out to give their view of why the military was struggling to recruit.

Jones, and another who was happy to be interviewed, spoke of a negative view of veterans putting others off joining the armed forces, and the treatment of veterans that has pushed them to deter others from signing up.

That is not to say their opinions are necessarily held by a majority of veterans: in late 2021, a Military Family Advisory Network survey of 8,638 people found 63 percent of active-duty troops, veterans and their families would still recommend a military career—though this had slipped significantly from 74.5 percent two years prior.

Stigma of Service

“You have this fundamental problem that there is a definite negative stigma associated with military service,” Jones said. “We try to gloss it over with Veterans Day, and ‘thank you for your service’ and all that. But underneath that is sort of the opposite, that you’re a troubled individual,” which in some cases could make it difficult to get a job.

He noted that when he returned from service in 1969, “no hippie spit on me at San Francisco airport,” which he described as “a metaphor, invented by Hollywood.”

Hollywood was one element of the media blamed by military recruiters for perpetuating an image of military service as being caught up in perilous situations followed by a physically and mentally troubled life as a veteran.

Jones said there were a few war movies that “get my blood pressure up” because “at the end of each movie, the principal characters commit suicide because of the terrible trauma that they experienced.”

Another veteran, who asked not to be named, spoke of the negative publicity of the military from seemingly constant advertising about veterans who had been physically affected through their service, without the armed forces offering an alternative view.

“These kids every day are seeing the ads about Camp Lejeune and the health issues and the contaminated water,” he said, referencing the North Carolina base where contamination led to those serving there between 1953 and 1987 developing severe health conditions. “And they’re seeing the ads for the [Disabled American Veterans] with these poor men who served and they don’t have an arm or a leg or something.”

Jones recognized that there were severe physical and mental health concerns among veterans—some 24 kill themselves every day—who he said should be treated accordingly, but argued many had not seen the combat conditions that caused post-traumatic stress disorder in some of his compatriots.

“I didn’t go to a bar and drink and meet my buddies and any of that crap,” he said. “I just put it behind me and moved on. That’s a key thing, if you’re going to not have post-traumatic stress disorder, is get busy and do something else.”

But engaging yourself in a different career can be difficult when a stigma around service remains. Jones recalled being introduced to a woman planning a trip to Vietnam by his wife. “She looked at me and she said, ‘But you don’t look like a Vietnam War veteran.'”

“What she was saying is she had this stereotypical image of what a Vietnam veteran is supposed to look like,” he explained. “Somebody who rides around on motorcycles, is grossly overweight, drinks all the time and has a wild look in his eye.”

Wasted Sacrifice

Jones was stationed at Landing Zone Schueller near An Khe for five months; of the men he served with, he said 20 were killed while he was there, while hundreds were wounded and one in four contracted malaria. The area was also defoliated with Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide sprayed by the U.S. which has since caused major health problems for those exposed, though Jones said it “fortunately” has had no effect on him.

Forty years on, the other veteran who spoke to Newsweek cited another withdrawal from a lengthy conflict, this time in Afghanistan, as a source of unhappiness among veterans. “I know people who have served over there who are just absolutely depressed [at] how the U.S. exited, leaving the translators who helped them,” many of whom were killed when the Taliban took charge, he said.

The former Navy serviceman said he and others he meets at his American Legion Hall view the departure from Afghanistan and the drawn-out war in Ukraine as signs “our leadership is just totally incompetent,” and asked: “Would you want to get into a profession or take a job where coming out of it you’ve got a chance of joining a million totally disabled?”

He added: “My kids and anybody who has any common sense or intelligence is not going to sign up for the military.”

John Jones
John Jones, a medical corpsman in Dak Po, Vietnam, in October 1968.

However, he noted that during his service, he had lived “a pretty cush life” as a line officer in the U.S. Navy, which began with touring the Mediterranean and Caribbean before being sent to Vietnam to courier ammunition. “Some people really got screwed by being in the military,” he said. “But I’m one of the lucky ones.”

When asked to comment, a Department of Defense spokesperson told Newsweek it “values the dedicated service and sacrifice of every veteran and understand the concerns some may have” and said its “greatest strategic asset is our people, and we will always pursue options to enhance how we take care of our service members and their families.”

They added they would continue to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to “support our transitioning service member and veteran population, while also engaging them in our efforts to recruit the future force.”

‘The Government Itself Does Not Come Through’

While the Navy veteran had his MBA paid for him by the military when he returned from service, like many, he receives medical from the VA and went on to have a successful career in the automobile industry, others have not been as fortunate.

Jones said his friend, fellow Vietnam veteran Irv Harper, took his own life while in the Yukon in 2009. Harper, he explained, contracted malaria in Vietnam, but when he approached the VA, he was told it had lost his medical records and would have to prove he contracted the disease while in active service, which he couldn’t. “He never went back,” Jones said.

He cited it as one instance of what he described as “broken promises,” adding that sometimes “the government itself does not come through.”

Jones has had his own 14-year-long legal battle after being discriminated against by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which a Merit Systems Protection Board in 2010 found “violated regulations relating to veterans’ preference,” which gives ex-service people first dibs on federal jobs, after turning him down for a job because he was a veteran.

Following his time in the military, Jones said he spent around seven years as an administrator of nursing homes across southeastern America before working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. The court found that while the CDC had discriminated against him based on his veteran status, he was ultimately not qualified for the role.

Jones said he was offered a $100,000 settlement by the CDC in 2016, but has yet to receive the money. “If I knew it was going to end like this, I would have emigrated to another country,” he remarked, but said he had stayed as he held out hope that the federal agency would heed the court order.

Newsweek reached out to the CDC via email for comment on Thursday.