A History Of PTSD Following The Vietnam War

We have heard and seen the acronym “PTSD” for decades now, especially since the 1980s beginning some 15 years after the end of the Vietnam War. Its official designation is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we have learned a lot more about it and its effects on those who suffer the more debilitating aspects of it, as well as how it affects their families. It is a reality. The following are some thoughts on what we know about PTSD and what can be done for it.  
 
PTSD is a psychological wound, but it can also have very real physical consequences on the body and the physical health of those who suffer from it. The term PTSD is relatively new. It is the latest in a long series of terms that have been used to describe the invisible psychological injuries that arise from the trauma of war. 

PTSD affects the brain in a number of ways, mentally and physically.
PTSD affects the brain in a number of ways, mentally and physically.

Many who fought in the American Civil War suffered psychological symptoms after the war that are very much like those being experienced by American warriors today. Back then it was called things like “melancholia.” After WWI the term, “shell shock” was common. For WWII and Korean War veterans the term “battle fatigue” was common.    
 
There is a book called “Achilles In Vietnam,” by Jonathan Shay an MD, PhD psychiatrist at the Boston Department of Veterans Affairs, and a member of the Tufts Medical School faculty. The book, in part, shows that this kind of traumatic, psychological injury is not new. He uses Homer’s “Iliad,” an epic ancient Greek poem about a 10-year-long war and siege between the Greeks and the Trojans before the walls of Troy. The main character and greatest warrior is the famous demi-god, Achilles. Dr. Shay shows, with excerpts from the poem’s text, that the great Achilles suffered very similar psychological symptoms to those that our modern warriors experience. The first word of the poem is “Rage” and is a description of one of Achilles’ most recognizable symptoms.   

Many veterans return home from war with the lingering effects of PTSD.
Many veterans return home from war with the lingering effects of PTSD.

 
The point Dr. Shay is trying to make is that these invisible wounds of war, these psychological and soul deep injuries are a recognizable consequence of the experiences of combat, especially over long periods of time. It is a matter of fact also that never before has there been so much focused research and development of multiple treatment possibilities for this debilitating stress. 

A study was commissioned by the Congress in 1983, as a result of a growing awareness that many Vietnam veterans were not doing well post their Vietnam experiences. It was called the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It found that approximately 15% of men and 9% of women were suffering from what they called post-traumatic stress. Later studies found that up to 30% of men suffered PTSD at some point in their lives, often in what they call “late-onset” symptoms. 

Virtual reality treatment is one method of helping veterans overcome PTSD.
Virtual reality treatment is one method of helping veterans overcome PTSD.

 
Studies by Harvard School of Public Health, Columbia University, The American Legion, and the SUNY Downstate Medical Center found that even 3 decades after the end of the Vietnam War many veterans continued to suffer the after-effects of PTSD, especially among those who had experienced high levels of combat exposure. They also indicated that those who suffered from PTSD experienced lower levels of “satisfaction” with their lives, their marriages and that it affected their parenting abilities. They also found that the long term effects of PTSD had actual physical consequences as well in things like chronic fatigue and chronic pain. They also were more vulnerable to substance abuse of one kind or another in attempts to self-medicate. Heart disease and diabetes have been shown to be related to long-term PTSD, as well.

The VA and other organizations offer support for veterans with PTSD and other issues.
The VA and other organizations offer support for veterans with PTSD and other issues.

 
At this moment in our country’s history, it is important for all of us to have an awareness of the symptoms of PTSD. Vietnam veterans are still experiencing this long term form of trauma, but we have been at war for the last 20 years and many of our younger men and women warriors are already experiencing the effects of PTSD, or will sometime down the line. The veterans themselves and their family and friends need to know that there is hope, that there are many different ways to deal with and to get help for this very real consequence of combat. The following are excellent resources for finding information and help.   
 

 
We need to care for those who have so generously and courageously served the nation in the uniforms of the United States Armed Forces. They did so willingly, with complete dedication and with a patriotic commitment to defend the Constitution of the United States in times of war.  They have earned that level of commitment and respect from We The People.  It is our sacred and solemn duty to care for them in their need.   

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