The Vietnam War: A Legacy of Mental Health Issues Essay

No occupation on earth is more stressful than that of a combat soldier in a war zone. While wars have historically been fought with a front line and well planned strategies, modern warfare attacks ideologies that are without a clear geographic definition. The Vietnam war was a conflict that engaged over 2.4 million American troops during its 15 year history (Benjamin). These troops were subjected to a warfare that confronted guerilla tactics in the harsh conditions of jungle combat. Many of the troops were drafted and merely accepted the role as an alternative to prison or Canada. In addition, the Vietnam war was unique in its unpopularity and the attitude that society held towards the Vietnam veteran. The effects on the mental health of these soldiers has led to unemployment, drug addiction, divorce, suicide, and a range of mental illnesses. 

A key difference between the Vietnam War and previous wars was the intensity of the level of stress. War has always presented the combat veteran with a difficult situation in regards to stress. However, in World War II the soldier would engage in a battle that would last in terms of days. As the battle subsided, the front lines moved and combat ceased for a period of time. The battles lines were clearly marked and the enemy clearly defined. In Vietnam the soldiers faced a shadowy enemy with no front lines. They were in threat of losing their life 24 hours a day for every day they were in the country. There was no reprieve from the immediate threat of death.

In past wars there were always cases of ‘battle fatigue’ or ‘shell shock’, but the Vietnam War redefined this as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and its associated symptoms. While PTSD affects approximately 1 percent of the general population, it is as high as 15 percent among Vietnam veterans 35 years after the end of the war (Mollica et al. 2058-2059). PTSD in Vietnam veterans manifests itself through a variety of symptoms. These include social maladjustment, social phobia, guilt, difficulty controlling anger, joblessness, homelessness, and family strife (Frueh et al. 26). The Vietnam veteran is often faced with a lifetime of substance abuse, acute anxiety, and an inability to fit into a normal social setting.    

A problem that faced the returning Vietnam veteran was the negative attitude that society held for a veteran returning from an unpopular war. Army Captain Max Cleland, a soldier who lost both legs and was later elected a US Senator from Georgia explains, “To the devastating psychological effect of getting maimed, paralyzed, or in some way unable to reenter American life as you left it, is the added psychological weight that it may not have been worth it; that the war may have been a cruel hoax…” (qtd. in Nicosia 159-160). This effect was even more magnified for the minority veterans who served in disproportionate numbers and came home to face the additional burden of racism. Limited opportunities for blacks after the war resulted in conflicting feelings about the brutality waged against the Vietnamese and resulted in rates of PTSD among black veterans that were significantly higher than among whites (Allen 55). The Vietnam veteran faced the difficulty of PTSD in a world that was unsympathetic and ill-equipped to diagnose and treat the illnesses that the war had inflicted.

The Veteran’s Administration (VA) has been traditionally reluctant to recognize and adequately treat PTSD. The VA currently publishes estimates that indicate that as many as 30 percent of the Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD, which is in excess of some other more conservative estimates (“How Common is PTSD?”). However, the availability of resources has not been sufficient to meet the need. The American Psychiatric Association has reported that the reported cases of PTSD have risen by 42 percent in recent years, but funding has only been increased by 22 percent (Mulligan). The problem of under-treatment is also complicated by under self-reporting. Veterans may feel that if they seek treatment for a mental health issue they will be stigmatized by society. Bliese et al. have reported that “While there is a lack of empirical evidence on how to reduce stigma, changes in organizational policies, assessment strategies and active early outreach services have the potential to minimize stigma” (147). While the recognition of the magnitude of the problem is a positive first step, the VA clearly needs to do more to fund the current treatment regimens, reduce stigma, and bring more victims into the program. 

In an effort to improve the state of treatment for PTSD, the VA has established PTSD Clinical Teams (PCT) at every VA hospital that have been encouraged to apply for funding directed at new and innovative treatments (Mulligan). Some of these new therapies may be cognitive behavioral therapy or brief therapy. In both cases, the program is of shorter duration and more economical than traditional long-term counseling. Family and friends should also be pro-active in the intervention and the treatment for PTSD. In a study by Sherman et al. the researchers found that 78 percent of the partners involved felt that family therapy was helpful in treating PTSD (1151). Getting the Vietnam veteran into treatment even 30 years after the trauma can still be effective and helpful.  

In conclusion, PTSD affects a significant number of Vietnam veterans even 3 decades after the conflict has ended. The months spent under the threat of death severely impacted the mental; health of these veterans. These veterans suffer with unemployment, substance abuse, and social strife and these anxieties make treating the underlying PTSD even more difficult. The Vietnam veteran is unique due to the unpopularity of the war and the social tensions that they met upon their return home. Only recently has the VA been more forthcoming in it estimates of the numbers of soldiers afflicted. Still, there are too few resources devoted to handling these veterans. New therapies and novel approaches can help stretch the funding and aid as many veterans as possible. The Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD has been left out of the mental health system and the VA needs to be pro-active in bringing these veterans into the system so they can receive the treatment that they need.