I was so mad at my mother, Zelda that I didn't write or call for almost two months. She should have gone up the nun's hill to the convent, like she wanted, instead of having me. But she had married Swede Johnson from off-reservation, and I'd arrived premature. He'd had the grace, at least, to go AWOL from army boot camp and never let his face be seen again. (1.2.15)
Soldiers are actually all over this novel, now that we think about it. In this early reference, Albertine casually drops that her father was a soldier in an unnamed conflict (and a deserter, apparently).
She started after him. Party because she didn't know what she was looking for, partly because he was a soldier like her father, and partly because he could have been an Indian, she followed. (9.1.12)
When Albertine runs away to Fargo, she ends up at the bus station with no money and no idea where to go. For a lifeline, she latches on to a dude she sees walking by who looks like a soldier. Although Albertine didn't really have a relationship with her dad, she decides that the fact that he and her pops shared a profession is reason enough to trust him.
She was tall, strong, twice the size of most Vietnamese. It had been a long time since he'd seen any Indian women, even a breed. He had been a soldier, was now a veteran, had seen nine months of combat in the Annamese Cordillera before the NVA captured him somewhere near Pleiku. They kept him half a year. He was released after an honorable peace was not achieved, after the evacuation. (9.1.18)
Now the third-person narrator slips over to the soldier's perspective, and we learn that he was in Vietnam and had been captured. Also, we get a wry comment about the Vietnam conflict overall, in which "an honorable peace was not achieved."
On the tiny square of floor, still dressed, the bundle she had carried opened and spread all around her, she crouched low. And he saw her as the woman back there. How the hell could you figure them? She looked at him. They had used a bayonet. She was out of her mind. You, me, same. Same. She pointed to her eyes and his eyes. The Asian, folded eyes of some Chippewas. She was hemorrhaging. Question her. Sir, she is dying, sir. "And anyway, what could I have asked? Huh? What the hell?" Albertine was looking at him, staring at him. He realized he had spoken out loud. (9.1.60-67)
Albertine and the soldier (who turns out to be Henry Lamartine Junior) end up in a hotel together. Because Henry seems to be suffering from PTSD, he suddenly starts confusing Albertine with an injured woman he'd encountered back in Vietnam. He even starts talking to her as though she were the woman, which shows just how powerful those flashbacks are.
Near dawn, Albertine could not remember where she was. She could not remember about the dull ache between her legs. She turned to the man and made the mistake of touching him in his sleep. His name came back to her. She was about to say his name. He shrieked. Exploded. (9.1.96-97)
In the morning, Albertine makes the mistake of trying to touch Henry when he's sleeping. Again, probably because of PTSD, he does not react well to being surprised in his sleep and wakes up screaming.
The one who went wild on me was unexpected. That was Henry Junior. All his life he did things right, and then the war showed him right was wrong. Something broke in him. His mind gave way. He was past all touch when he returned. I would catch his gaze sometimes and think I recognized it from somewhere. One day I knew. He had the same dead wide stare as the man in my playhouse. (15.1.70)
Now that Henry Junior is gone (apparently as a result of suicide), Lulu reflects on what went wrong. In her opinion, the war had somehow flipped everything upside down for Henry, making right into wrong and vice versa.
"… I was in Nam." "He never got off the West Coast." Lynette leaned back to me with a bleary confiding look. Not that she'd been drinking. She seemed punch-addled or half asleep. "We listen to him anyway." She winked. "How he does blab on." (16.2.4-5)
King Kashpaw also claims that he went to Vietnam, but according to Lynette, he never left the West Coast of the U.S. Whatever his actual wartime experience, he certainly acts as though he knows a lot.
I happened to take a close look around me at one point, and then I realized something. I realized that if I went in the army, and then if I got lucky enough to come out, I would be a veteran like these guys—gumming the stubble on their chins, dreaming of long-hocked medals, curling up around their secret war wounds to comfort a lonesome night. Not much in that, less than nothing. (16.2.70)
In a moment of impulsivity, Lipsha joined the military… and immediately regretted that choice. He regrets it even more when he gets a good look at the veterans surrounding him, who are clearly in financial trouble (hence the hocked medals) and have only wounds and stubble for company—and that's the good outcome (i.e., what Lipsha gets if he came back alive). So, Lipsha is already trying to think of ways to get out of his service.
An old Sioux vet who said he was at Iwo Jima with Ira Hayes passed me a bagged flask of whiskey underneath the sign PLEASE DON'T DRINK HERE. THIS IS YOUR LOBBY. I took a long pull, slugged it down. Then I started crying. That is, tears came out. I made no sound. (16.2.76)
Apparently, the vets Lipsha is hanging out with are also into alcohol, drinking on the down low in public. As you can see from the tears, Lipsha is getting increasingly tweaky in the wake of his decision to join the military.
"Like I was telling you, I was in the Marines. You can't run from them bastards, man. They'll get you every time. I was in Nam." (16.2.134)
Despite Lynette's claim that King wasn't in "Nam," King is all in on saying the opposite. Here, he's trying to give advice to Lipsha about whether he can dodge the draft.