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War Veteran Muller Now Promotes Peace

By Kathi Wolfe

Many people feel as if their lives have ended when they sustain a spinal-cord injury. But that wasn’t the case for Bobby Muller, 62. As a 23-year-old U.S. Marines infantry officer in Vitnam leading his battalion against the Viet Cong, a bullet went through his lungs, causing them to collapse, and severed his spinal cord.

“By all rights I should have died,” Muller, president of Veterans for America (formerly the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation), said in a recent interview in his office in Washington, D.C. After being shot, Muller could feel himself losing consciousness. “Oh my God! I’m going to die!” he thought to himself. “I can’t believe it. Goodbye! Lights out!”

Luckily, because a medevac helicopter happened to be in the area where Muller was hit, within minutes of being wounded, he was airlifted to the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, anchored nearby. Officials wrote in his medical records that if he’d arrived one minute later, he would have been dead, Muller said.

When he awoke in the intensive care unit of the Repose, “my response was absolute amazement, just total disbelief that I had not, in fact, died,” Muller said. When a few days later doctors told him he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life, Muller remembered saying, “That’s OK.

“It was always the joy at....being dealt back into the game that defined my life,” he said. “It was not about the loss. It was about what you got.”

Despite his positive outlook, Muller struggled to adjust to his disability. Yet from his awakening that day in 1969 on the Repose, he has been on a search for “purposefulness” and ways to contribute to “the goodness of mankind and love,” Muller said. In a wide-ranging chat, Muller, who still has the presence of a Marine commander, riffs like a rock star in describing his transformation from a non-disabled Marine into a vet with a spinal cord injury who turned against war and into a disability rights supporter.

That change was something that many of his generation went through. Muller, a native of Great Neck, N.Y., began his commission with the U.S. Marines the same day he received his B.A. in business administration from Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., in 1968.

When he came of age, the public had confidence in America’s government and moral standing in the world. In 1964, 76 percent of Americans said “yes” when an opinion poll asked, “Do you trust your political leadership and the institutions of government of the United States to do the right thing all or most of the time?” Muller said. At the time, America, the only industrialized country to emerge from World War II intact, dominated the world militarily and economically. (Ten years later, only 34 percent of people surveyed responded affirmatively to the same question, he said.)

“We just had a...sense that we’d saved the world for freedom and democracy,” Muller said. “The defining part of the early ‘60s was the civil rights movement.” He watched on TV as the federal government sent in troops to desegregate public schools, when the late George Wallace (a segregationist Alabama governor), stood on schoolhouse steps and proclaimed, “Segregation....forever!”

“When the country said, ‘We’ve got to help the people of Vietnam fend off a Communist invasion,’ I didn’t know where Vietnam was,” Muller said. “I didn’t know anything about the history of Vietnam. I didn’t know anything about the culture.”

Because he trusted the government, he enlisted in the armed forces. “I went into the Marines largely because the uniform was cool,” he said ruefully. “They’re...a little tougher (than the other armed services). It appealed to the macho aspect of me.” By the time he finished the Marine training programs, he’d been “psyched” and demanded to be in the infantry and Vietnam, Muller said. “I was conditioned, ‘drank the Kool-Aid’ and went over.”

When you’re in a war zone and fighting, you don’t have political discussions about the “rightness or wrongness” of being there, Muller said. “You’re going to go out on patrol; you’re going to do the ambushes. You don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I quit. I don’t want to do this anymore.’” Troops aren’t motivated by abstract notions of patriotism, Muller said. “(The motivation is) taking care of those around you.” As an infantry officer in combat, he went through changes that allowed him to “continue to do what you’re doing every day in....extreme circumstances.”

After his stay on the hospital ship in 1969, Muller spent a year in Kingsbridge, the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx. There, the defensive mechanisms that he’d developed in Vietnam in order to keep fighting “deconstructed,” Muller said. “When you have the opportunity to think about the experiences that you’ve gone through...you start to learn...about the situation: ‘Who are the Vietnamese people? What is their culture?’”

At Kingsbridge, a former 19th-century orphanage that was converted into a hospital, the dismal conditions of being overcrowded and dramatically understaffed helped Muller develop a more informed view “of what the hell it was that I’d been involved in, along with a whole lot of us.”

The deplorable treatment Muller and other veterans received at Kingsbridge infuriated him. As a Marine commander, he’d had “an extraordinary amount of power,” Muller said, adding that, for him, it was “the closest thing to (being) God.” From that powerful position, he became “just another patient on a ward in a government-run facility…without a whole lot of respect and care,” he said.

But because Muller spoke his mind, was educated and had the “bona fides” of being a combat casualty, he became a ward representative. Along with other vets in wheelchairs, he not only got into the hospital director’s office, but onto the media radar.

A 1970 cover story by Life magazine (at a time when it was hugely popular) called the ward that he’d been on a “medical slum,” Muller said. The story, printed in the second-largest-selling issue in the magazine’s history, shocked America and had an impact similar to that of the recent Washington Post investigation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Muller said. Soon after, congressional hearings and investigations were conducted.

In the years following his injury, Muller joined the efforts of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and vets opposed to the war prodded him to expand his advocacy. At the same time, Muller was coming face-to-face with societal attitudes toward people with disabilities.

On the hospital ship with tubes coming out of his body, a doctor asked him if he had a girlfriend. (At the time, he was dating a Yale student.) “He said, ‘What are you going to do?’” Muller said. “I said, ‘I’m going to tell her to go find another guy.’”

The physician wasn’t satisfied with this answer. “He said, ‘Is your girlfriend....smart? Do you respect her?’” Muller said. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then the doc asked, ‘Why are you making decisions for her?’” The doctor said Muller needed to “tell her what the deal is with you, but then it’s her decision to make – if she wants to go or stay.”

The way the doctor laid it out was “just simple logic, so I said ‘I guess you’re right,’” Muller said. He and the Yale student stayed together and enjoyed a good relationship for several years before going their separate ways. “But she was very ‘stand by your man,’” Muller said. “She was there for that critical first year or two. That was very good.”

(Currently, Muller is single. He has two stepsons from his first wife, who died in 1996. His second marriage ended in divorce, but he is “good friends” with his ex-wife, he said.)

In the early 1970s, Muller got involved with the burgeoning disability civil rights movement after finding himself thinking about the discrimination that people with disabilities encounter. “When I roll down the street in my wheelchair, I don’t have a label on me that says ‘veteran,’” he said. “I’m just another guy in a wheelchair.”

One day in 1972, disability rights advocate Judith E. Heumann called Muller. Then-President Richard M. Nixon had vetoed legislation that would have expanded medical care for veterans and the civil rights of people with disabilities. Heumann asked Muller to join a coalition of veterans and people with disabilities to protest Nixon’s vetoes of the two bills. (The bills, the Veterans’ Medical Care Expansion Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, were later signed by Nixon. The regulations implementing Section 504 of the latter act, which prohibited entities receiving federal funds from engaging in disability-based discrimination, were signed in 1977.)

“We put our wheelchairs in the middle of Times Square and...blocked traffic” during rush hour, Muller said of what became one of the first disability rights demonstrations. When the police came, the protesters said, “’Arrest us!’” Muller recalled. “And they said, ‘No! What....are we going to do with you guys?’” That angered the demonstrators, Muller said, because “we couldn’t get arrested like regular people!”

Seeking to work for social justice, he and some of his pals applied to law school. “We’d been out on the streets (and) now we wanted to work within the system for real change,” Muller said.

After graduating from Hofstra University’s law school in 1974, Muller served as legal counsel for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. “The only legal thing I did at EPVA was veterans claims, (but) a law school degree is useful,” Muller said. “If you’re going to become an advocate, it can help you.”

After moving to D.C., Muller founded Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) in 1978 and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (later renamed Veterans for America) in 1980. VVA won for all veterans the right to judicial review of all Veterans Administration decisions. Muller’s work as head of VVA resulted in legislation granting veterans compensation for Vietnam-related disabilities, including impairments resulting from Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In 1981, Muller led the first delegation of American veterans to return to Vietnam since the end of the war. The veterans’ work ultimately helped to lift the economic embargo imposed on Vietnam by the U.S. and to normalize relations between the two countries, which occurred in December 2006. According to Muller, his visit to Vietnam was a privilege.

“We came to an appreciation that the war’s over — like it or not,” Muller said. “We’re going to have to reconcile this thing. It was necessary that those who fought in the war be on the front end of the process.”

In 1984, as part of his work in the normalization process, Muller went to Cambodia, which lost more than a quarter of its population to genocide in a four-year period.

“It was just awful,” Muller said. “What became ‘the poor man’s war’ relied on inexpensive, totally indiscriminate land mines.” He found an extraordinary number of amputees crawling around because there was no medical care or rehabilitation facility to provide prosthetic limbs. “There was no electricity, no running water. I found...multiple-amputated people with their families. It was like they’d been warehoused – waiting to die.

“You can’t walk away from that,” said Muller, who had traveled to Cambodia with a friend who’d had his legs blown off in Vietnam. “You’ve got to do something.” Muller established a prosthetic clinic on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. The facility, now the country’s national rehabilitation center, produces more than 140 prostheses and orthoses monthly, along with 30 wheelchairs.

In 1991, to continue the work begun in Cambodia, Muller co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Today, through Muller’s efforts, VFA assists innocent civilian victims of combat in 14 war-torn countries through a wide range of social and rehabilitation services.

Currently, much of Muller’s energy is spent trying to secure respect and better treatment for veterans of the war in Iraq. Just as in the Vietnam War era, the needs of veterans returning from Iraq aren’t understood by the American public or government, Muller said. Two of the most common disabilities of Iraq vets are traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder. TBI is organic damage to the brain caused by explosions; PTSD is the psychological trauma resulting from war. Often, people don’t understand the difference between the two conditions, which can result in improper treatment, he said.

Part of the difficulty of living with brain injury is that “your whole cognitive function” is impaired, Muller said. “Not to be callous, but if you’re....mobility impaired, you can get an adaptive device. You have the full capacity to engage in life.” With a brain injury, he said, “your ability to function is profoundly compromised” and you can’t compensate for it with a prosthetic device.

Department of Defense studies have documented the damaging effect of TBI and PTSD, Muller said. “It’s as though the whole Vietnam experience never happened,” he said. “The failure to acknowledge post-traumatic stress and effectively address it....in treatment is just unconscionable.”

There’s a real need for people involved in disability issues to reach out to the recent casualties of the Iraq war “and let them know what (services and community support) is available,” Muller said. Community-based efforts are often more easily available to vets and their families than what’s provided by the Veterans Administration, he said.

“A lot of people who come back from this war, who are processed out because of injuries, wind up feeling very alone,” Muller said. Independent living centers, through outreach, can help to end their sense of isolation, and peer support can help veterans with disabilities develop a sense of self-worth while providing a needed boost to get them back into the mainstream — socializing, working and living their lives, he said.


Kathi Wolfe, based in the Washington, D.C., area, writes frequently on disability issues. She is the author of the recently published book “Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems.”

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