What we know about PTSD and Vietnam veterans today

By JACLYN GOLDSBOROUGH | The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind. / Tribune News Service) | Published: April 30, 2015

For the 2.7 million Americans who fought in the Vietnam War, the painful memories of war still linger 40 years later.

A recent congressionally mandated study by the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 283,000 Vietnam veterans still suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from their war experiences in Southeast Asia. That translates to approximately 283,000 male and 400 female Vietnam veterans living today.

Dr. James Lowery, PTSD clinical team member for the VA of Northern Indiana, said even though their service may have been 40 or more years ago, often the memories are vivid and real as if they happened only recently.

“The nature of the Vietnam War, like all wars, was complex. Because of the topography of the country and the nature of the enemy, in some cases, it was not always clear who was dangerous, or from where the danger might come. This uncertainty led to heightened anxiety in some veterans upon their return,” Lowery said.

PTSD can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like combat, assault or disaster. Unfortunately, it’s a condition that can ravage our nation’s veterans and lead to dysfunctional lives, alcoholism, and suicide. The mental illness also was linked with other health problems such as cardiovascular disease and ailments of the back, knees or other joints.

The study found that about 11 percent of Vietnam combat veterans today still deal with the intrusive nightmares and memories and the tendency toward isolation, numbness and anxiety that come with PTSD. About a third also suffer from major depression.

These findings suggest that for a notable group of Veterans, PTSD symptoms are chronic and long-lasting and that particular groups of veterans may be at elevated risk of developing PTSD.

Lowery said PTSD was not even a diagnosis until 1980 and was not widely infused into treatment protocols until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, so the veterans who experienced post-combat trauma were not widely diagnosed or referred to professionals.

There’s also a serious stigma also attached to PTSD, which made it far less likely that a veteran would consider seeking help. Additionally, at the time of the war, there were significant social issues such as protests and negative media coverage that led to some veterans having more difficulty coping when they returned from Vietnam.

Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Ph.D., is a professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences. She’s also the director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University and spends her time researching topics related to family issues for military members such as deployment, relocation, transitions into civilian life, and even wounds or injuries.

Wadsworth explained that returning to civilian life was extremely difficult for Vietnam veterans due to the prominate public disdain for the war unlike any previous conflict.

“WWII in general was a very popular war, but not Vietnam. Vietnam was an unpopular war and by the time it ended it was very unpopular. The veterans of that war were not lauded when they came home. They were not supported. They were not celebrated. They were not honored. I think people didn’t always try to make the distinction between the war and the warrior. It’s also not clear just how well the warriors can hear that, too. Even today, people are very careful to say, ‘I hate the war, but I appreciate the troops.’ It’s not always easy for the warrior to hear that. It’s two different messages,” Wadsworth said.

However, recent awareness of this fact and the new information about treatment for PTSD is evidence the country is moving forward.

“Since Vietnam, people have tried very hard to be supportive and honor their veterans. There’s also that effort to try to be aware and be responsive to emerging health needs of veterans sooner. For veterans with PTSD, we can figure it out faster and get them into care faster, but I think there’s been a lot of awareness of the Vietnam generation and a lot of what we are learning about the newest generation has the potential to be helpful for the Vietnam veterans as well,” Wadsworth said.

The National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS) is a followup of a previous study of the impact of military service on mental and physical health outcomes among Vietnam veterans - the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) - completed 25 years ago.

The original study was authorized by Congress in 1983 after a debate over the long-term effects of war between those who thought that the nation’s 8.3 million Vietnam-era veterans had successfully adjusted to civilian life and those who suspected that many had not.

Dr. William Schlenger, co-author of the study, said in a news release that on-going research on the mental health of veterans will help prepare medical professionals for the best possible treatment moving forward.

“While the NVVLS paints a disturbing portrait of the course of PTSD and its long-term medical consequences for a significant number of service members exposed to warzone stress, the NVVLS helps us better understand the costs of war and provides empirical data from which to base policy and treatment decisions to meet the needs of veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and of future wars,” Schlenger said.


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