PITTSBURGH — On the morning of July 29, 1967, Preston Gardner, a Navy senior chief petty officer, had just finished an overnight shift aboard the USS Forrestal, an aircraft carrier operating in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.
A stray electrical signal ignited a rocket on board. It shot across the flight deck, hitting the fuel tank of a fully armed fighter jet. Seconds later, a 1,000-pound bomb fell from the plane and cracked, sending flames sweeping across the ship.
Gardner immediately positioned himself beneath the deck, spraying water to help thwart further damage. Twenty-four hours later, he was able to remove himself from his position. The flames claimed the lives of 134 sailors.
Gardner knew he would never forget the smell of burnt flesh. The odor lingered as he and surviving crew mates spent 23 days sailing back to the United States.
“It is something I’ll remember the rest of my life,” said Gardner, now 75, of Cheswick.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans alive today who can describe the horrors of the Vietnam War firsthand. Their status as war Veterans is central to their identity. Yet when they fill out the 2020 census, they will be unable to designate themselves as such. The census does not collect that information.
It’s not just a point of pride for those who have served. Data generated by the census determines state and federal funding, as government services are allocated according to demographics. Without such a designation, organizations that focus on helping Veterans find jobs and housing may not receive enough funding to support the people they serve.
In Pennsylvania, that means more than 813,000 Veterans could be impacted, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, with 78,241 Veterans in Allegheny County and 26,645 in Westmoreland.
Vietnam Veterans account for 40% of Veterans in the state and are now the largest group of Veterans across the country. Approximately 2.7 million American men and women served in Vietnam, with a total of 3.4 million sent to Southeast Asia during the war, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Veteran question has not been on the census since 2000, spokeswoman Susan Licate said.
She noted that a question pertaining to Veterans’ benefits is included on smaller surveys such as the American Community Survey, the Current Population Survey and the Survey of Income and Program Participation — but those are not as definitive as a complete count, said Ben Stahl, CEO of the Veterans Leadership Program in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
“We comprise a large amount of Vets in the state,” Stahl said of Allegheny County Veterans. “When it comes time for our elected officials to portion funding, it behooves them to know where these people are getting resources to live.”
Demographic, social and economic data on Veterans collected from the American Community Survey is used for policy analysis, program planning and budgeting of Veteran programs. But data collected during the census determines congressional seats and federal and state funding.
“It has the potential to not allow the necessary resources to be allocated,” Stahl said. “We’re not able to get the right resources to the right people at the right time.”
About 65% of the money for the Veterans Leadership Program comes from federal funding, he said.
“If we don’t have the right and accurate number of Veterans, all services would be affected and Veterans services could be affected,” said Dayna Brown, executive director of Beechview-based Pittsburgh Hires Veterans, noting that several local Veteran services rely on data for funding.
Last year, the former head of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs pushed for the census to include a question about Veterans, the Associated Press reported. Terry Schow, a Vietnam Veteran, said the question would give states a more accurate count of people with military service.
Schow noted that smaller surveys, like the American Community Survey, only go to a portion of the population. The ACS is sent to 3.5 million people per year. The United States has a population of nearly 330 million people.
He added that counts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which he said uses census data for spending on Veteran housing, hospitals and assistance programs, likely miss a large number of people.
The changing Veteran
Those numbers become increasingly important based on differing needs of Veterans who have served in changing wars. The changes have resulted in a career soldier who serves multiple tours of duty rather than someone who was drafted to serve for a designated amount of time.
Western Pennsylvania mirrors that changing Veteran, said Jack Wagner, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Hires Veterans.
“This whole region is one of the highest concentrations of Veterans in America,” said Wagner, who previously served as state auditor general, a state senator and on Pittsburgh’s City Council. “It probably has a lot to do with our history, with our core values, a lot to do with blue-collar tradition, with steel and coal and manufacturing. But today it has transformed into a high technology region when, in fact, the military has become high technology in many ways.”
Following the Vietnam War, the United States stopped using the draft. But it was in place during World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
According to census data, about 12 million Americans served in uniform during World War II and 3.6 million during the Korean War.
Now, Veterans from World War II and Korea make up fewer than 10% of Veterans in Pennsylvania.
Following the Vietnam War, the number of soldiers sent to war dropped.
According to the VA, more than 690,000 soldiers were deployed during the Gulf War. Last year, about 22,000 troops were serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as part of the Global War on Terror that started in October 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“It’s the longest period of prolonged warfare in American history, and Afghanistan is the longest sustained campaign. … We’ve done that with an all-volunteer force,” said Matt Zamosky, director of the Westmoreland Veterans Affairs. “There’s really no indication that we’re going toward a draft.”
Of Veterans today, one in five served on active duty following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a 2019 Pew Research report.
Of post-9/11 soldiers, about three-quarters were deployed at least once, compared with 58% of those who served before them. They are also twice as likely as their pre-9/11 counterparts to have served in a combat zone, the report shows.
Predictions from the Department of Veteran Affairs show there could be 5.1 million post-9/11 Veterans by next year.
“We are now into multi-generations of families that are serving,” Zamosky said. “So a father could be serving with his daughter. It’s a unique time for Veterans.”
Plethora of help
Still, about one in three post-9/11 Veterans have a disability, data shows. Vietnam Veterans are facing lasting effects from Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear plants and trees that Vietnamese soldiers would hide in during the war. The chemical has caused diseases such as cancer, heart disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and more.
“I’ve lost many friends through the Agent Orange. Many of my brothers came back, but they didn’t come back,” Gardner said. “They’re just a body.
“You hear of a Vietnam Veteran, fairly well-decorated, just dying in the street or something like that.”
Today, several local nonprofits are aimed at helping reintegrate soldiers into society and provide medical attention. They include the Paralyzed Veterans of America in Downtown Pittsburgh; Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard in Pittsburgh’s East End, which works to end homelessness; Helping Hands for Wounded Veterans in White Oak; and several others.
“Right now, Veterans are much more accepted back into society,” said Carl Kusbit, commander of VFW Post 1437 in Springdale. “There are many great programs out there to help Vets.”
Kusbit, now 70, served in the military during the Vietnam War, although he did not see combat. At the age of 55 he reenlisted, serving as an Army medic in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like Kusbit, Bill Roland, 69, of North Versailles continues to offer his military services. Around the time of the Vietnam War, Roland served in the Navy, although he was never deployed to the war. Years later, he received a second chance at serving as an operating room nurse in Kosovo and in cities across Central America.
Most recently he offered to work on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic.
People like that, Wagner said, are the reason Pittsburgh Hires Veterans is aimed at helping all age groups reintegrate into society after leaving the military, adding that Vietnam Veterans, who are between the ages of 65 and 75, are still looking to work.
“I’m an older Veteran, I’m a Vietnam Veteran and I’m still working, and many Veterans today choose to work if they’re physically capable of doing so,” Wagner said.
Gardner, who is the commander at the Springdale American Legion, takes comfort knowing he is doing all he can to help not only Vietnam Vets but those who have served since.
“It’s rewarding that I’m a part of it,” he said.
Still, Gardner struggles with his own memories from his time in the service.
“I try to not remember the negative stuff because you’ll always have negative,” he said, choosing instead to focus on the support from his family and American Legion friends.