How a country treats it war veterans says a lot about its values. Not the values it purports to cherish, but those it actually holds. Whether one comes from a family where fathers, son, mothers and daughters have always served, or from one that hasn’t seen a member in uniform for generations, most of us believe that when a nation sends its young people off to war, they deserve recognition and, more importantly, help—psychological, medical, financial, whatever it takes to make sure they’re whole—when they come home.
In the spring of 1971, LIFE magazine published a remarkable story, “A Veteran Comes Home—to Limbo,” written by Colin Leinster and featuring photographs by John Olson, who made some of the most indelible pictures from Vietnam. Focusing on one particular vet, 21-year-old Michael Ball from Midland, Mich., the article and photos captured the singular troubles faced by countless veterans, then and now, returning from war: the doubts; the troubled sleep; the anger; the longing for normalcy.
As Leinster wrote in the April 16, 1971, issue of LIFE:
We’re back in the world. No more heat or red dust or sodden patties. No more incoming to spatter you around like paint, no more snipers. No more silent jungles or quiet dead, no more clattering choppers or friends moaning and you too busy to help. No more barracks-room boredom with thumbed letters and magazines you know backwards . . . No more dawns over mountains that scare you. Most of all, better believe it, no more Vietnam. We’re out.
Last year some half-million GIs came home from Vietnam. This year another 200,000 are expected to return. The lucky ones come back with two arms, two legs, genitalia intact, alive. But that’s it, no more parades. The Calley Case sealed America’s dismay over Vietnam. Still, veterans of this war had already learned not to expect any band music. Even before they got back they knew the rule; don’t talk about it. Don’t volunteer to a pretty girl that you served in Vietnam. Don’t expect anybody to give you a job just because you are a vet. . . . You survived, so forget it.
Twenty-one-year-old Michael Ball is one of those who came back. Returning to his hometown of Midland, Mich., he finds himself caught in a limbo between war and peace. He cannot find a job. He’s alone, but he doesn’t know why. His Bronze Star lies in a tin box in his parents’ home.
In Vietnam, Ball was a staff sergeant with Alpha Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Regiment, First Cavalry Division (“the proud Air Cav”). He led a mortar platoon that saw action in both Vietnam and Cambodia. The whole time he was away from home, he was “shoving away the present and dreaming of sensible trees and fields and weather, of his mother’s new kitchen, of girls who speak English. . . .”
As the article and the pictures here—most of which never ran in LIFE—remind us, there are many types of homecomings. More often than we’d like, they fall short of what we hope and imagine they’ll be.
We honor you, Michael Ball.