With his blond hair and blue-eyed good looks, David Christian could pass for a movie war hero sent up by central casting. In real life Christian was barely 18 when be became the youngest second lieutenant ever to graduate from the Army’s Officer Candidate School. During an eight-month tour in Vietnam he collected two Congressional Medal of Honor nominations, seven Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Vietnamese Crosses of Galantry and a chestful of other medals. Disabled by napalm burns in 1968, be left the military at 21 and became the Army’s youngest retired captain. Christian’s fighting didn’t stop on the battlefield, however; finding a war-weary and often hostile public back borne, be launched a campaign for veterans’ rights and a barrage of criticism at government policy toward returning GIs. Now 32, be lives in Washington Crossing, Pa., with Peggy, his wife of 14 years, and three children. Last month Christian declined the No. 2 position in the VA to continue as executive director of the United Viet Nam Organization, which be started in 1978. He talked to PEOPLE’s Margot Achterberg about his fights at the front and at home.
In my childhood the only exotic, exciting, beautiful things that my mother shared with me were her military times. She was a WAC, and she met my father in the Philippines. She told me about the South Pacific, about serving with MacArthur, about New Guinea and Australia. I didn’t think of the military as a war machine for killing people; I thought of it as something romantic, the kind of romanticism that poets have attached to war in the past. When I was in high school, they put on South Pacific. Things like that were my perception of the military.
My mother raised me alone. My father was an alcoholic. One day he took the lawn mower to be fixed and never came back. I always used to wonder whether he got it fixed. I was brought up on welfare and hand-me-down clothes. At 17, I joined the Army, mainly for the GI Bill. I went into the military for upward mobility, free clothes and free food. But I quickly learned I’m a Spartan—I like competition. I hunted man and man hunted me.
In Cambodia I was wounded very bad one time. My boots were blown off my feet, and I was bleeding severely. I called for assistance and said, “I’m trapped behind the enemy’s lines, and we need a chopper out here.” They said, “Look Chris, you’re in Cambodia, and we can’t afford to lose a chopper in neutral territory. You’re going to have to get out before we can give you assistance.” I had to run eight kilometers barefooted through the jungle to the border. I was bleeding the whole time, with the enemy after me. I got to the border and I was picked up and I passed out from loss of blood. Later, I called my wife Peggy from the hospital and said, “I’ve just been shot and it’s a minor wound and I’m going back.” She said, “Well, all right hon, don’t get hurt.” We were young. Just kids.
One of the things that kept me going back to war was that it was more understandable than society. As soldiers, we operated by a strict code of honor. When I had firefights with the Vietcong, I respected them. They were brave and honorable enough to fight me. Once, I carried a wounded enemy soldier on my back for 12 kilometers so he could get help. The guy was petrified the whole time. He thought I was going to kill him. Another reason I kept returning was my fellow men. You become very attached and close to people who go through battle with you. I knew those guys and didn’t want anyone taking over my outfit and getting them killed.
When I finally got out, I was scared. I was 21 years old, a captain with a wife and a little girl and $8 in the bank. I went to Princeton, and Princeton was having moratorium days. I went up to Columbia, and they were blowing up the library right outside the university. I said, “This is nuts. I don’t want to fight another war, I just want to get back into the system. I just want to go to school.” I enrolled at Villanova, a nice, quiet campus, graduated in 19 months and went to Rutgers law school for three years. Law school was a horrible experience. Right after I got in I was on the elevator one day, and this kid came up to me and said, “Jeez, did you meet the warmonger yet?” I said, “What warmonger—who’s that?” He said, “The guy that killed all those women and children and got a bunch of medals for it—a real creep.” I looked at him and said, “You’re talking about me, and I never killed any women or children.”
They brought Jane Fonda out to protest my being there. Some of my professors didn’t believe I could have 100 bullet holes in my body and still be alive, and they made me take my shirt off so they could see the scars. Students would tear the American flag down and throw it on the ground, and I’d pick it up and walk away quietly. Some things I believed in, and I wasn’t going to change.
Since the Army, I’ve undergone major surgery 33 times. I was in the hospital both times Peggy was having our last two children. I don’t look like I’m disabled, but I have three square feet of scar tissue, constant pain in my right hand and pain all the time in my back. After the last of my surgery in 1977, I took a job as an executive director of a marketing company. Then I got a call from Washington, and they said, “You have a moral commitment to help veterans.” So in ’78 I went on down to the big city and found out it wasn’t that easy. The whole world wasn’t that interested in helping veterans.
I worked with the Department of Labor until I had a falling out with Carter and his people. It was Veterans Day, 1978, and they were going to dedicate a plaque to the Vietnam vets. They said, “All you can do is give the pledge of allegiance.” I figured, what the heck, we need more than a plaque, so I walked up to the microphone and went through the whole litany of problems. When I turned around, President Carter said, “Son, you are going somewhere.” Right after that I was fired.
Now we’re looking forward with great expectations to see what Reagan will do. We’re hoping, we’re praying, and we’re about to raise hell. I want the Vietnam issues answered—Agent Orange, the delayed-stress syndrome, psychological readjustment. Why the high unemployment rate and high suicide rate and high incidence of marital problems among Vietnam vets? Why all the “why’s” if the Vietnam vets have been fairly treated? We treat our welfare recipients and our prisoners better than we treat our own veterans.
I was out in Austin, Texas, and there was a family there with two sons who had the same disability, one-quarter-length arms with hooked hands. The doctors told them that this could only come from chemical exposure altering the chromosomes of one of the parents. The only time the father was exposed to chemicals was in service in Southeast Asia. The mother had never been near chemicals. I think it would be a lot easier to address the Agent Orange issue than to mass a campaign to tell the public that there is no problem. If we could find these men and give them a uniform, why can’t we find them and give them decent medical care?
Congress also put a 10-year limit on the Vietnam veterans’ education benefits. Now some of them have taken care of their drug and alcohol problems and say they want to go to school. They’re told, “You can’t go to school; your time ran out.” Well let’s extend their time. They kept extending the war. And if I can run gunships, helicopters, million-dollar heavy equipment, then tell the unions, tell industry management they’ve got to hire me. How would you like to be 35 years old, a former captain and Green Beret, and have somebody tell you the only job you were qualified for was to be a short-order cook at the Colorado State Zoo. That’s what they told a buddy of mine. They said he had no meaningful training. What should he do—go work in other wars?
I came out of the war with a respect for life. I don’t have any guns in my house, and I hope never to go out with a rifle again. But I’m still extremely patriotic and I still love this country. If they asked me to die tomorrow so nobody in this country would ever have to see the atrocities of war, would never have to see people blown away, I would give my life and I would give it gladly.