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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:
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.