The Cold War was characterized by covertness, but it was real enough to almost consume Scott L’Ecuyer. Nearly two decades after it ended, the former mechanic at a nuclear missile silo in North Dakota was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he says stemmed from his service with the Strategic Air Command in the late ’80s. He watched for Soviet attacks, managed the missiles’ temperature to prevent them from detonating—and was never more than three rings away from the phone during the 18-hour workdays. However, it was constantly asking himself if he was ready to “kill millions” by ensuring that the 450 warheads at the silo were always ready to launch that took its toll. But L’Ecuyer, now 43, is covering his own medical expenses since he isn’t recognized as a veteran: because war was never declared, 1945 to 1991 is classified as peacetime. And that makes Cold War vets in the U.S. who served outside of recognized action periods like Korea or Vietnam ineligible for the same pensions and benefits that traditional combat veterans receive.
According to the American Cold War Veterans organization, as many as 12 million U.S. veterans, like L’Ecuyer, are affected by the lack of recognition. Now these “forgotten” U.S. vets have begun demanding the same pensions and benefits as other veterans, who collect a pension on the basis of serving during a recognized war, serving a full military career, or being injured while in service. They are also pushing for a medal honouring their contribution (as is happening in Britain as well). While some politicians have supported the vets (Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully introduced the Cold War Medal acts of 2003, 2005 and 2007)—one obstacle, the Cold War vets say, is lack of support from other veterans. “If you didn’t get shot at, your service doesn’t register—a ‘my war was better than your war issue,’ ” says L’Ecuyer.
While Canadian Cold War vets don’t have their own medal (the government does recognize those who served under NATO through the Special Service Medal with the NATO bar), they are equal to other vets regarding pensions. A spokesperson for the British Cold War Veterans group, Tony Morland, says he’s lost hope his government will recognize the vets with a medal, and says most Cold War vets would be recognized if NATO issued the honour instead. “The Cold War was won by the NATO alliance sticking to its task,” says Morland. “It is now standard practice for NATO to issue medals for joint operations. One need only look at the Balkans and more recently in Afghanistan.” British veterans petitioned Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office last year asking for a service medal, but were told that they are only issued to those who have been subjected to risk and rigour “greatly in excess of what is reasonable to expect during normal service activity.”
For L’Ecuyer and others like him, the issue isn’t about glory. “During remembrance ceremonies, I don’t know which group to stand with,” says L’Ecuyer. “That’s the part that stings, when someone says you aren’t a veteran, you weren’t in combat. You were in combat in your head. I had to make a deal with the devil to fix those [missiles].”