Vietnam Veterans And The Problem Of PTSD
Articles / Blog
02-10-14 Category: Mental Health

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone who experiences a traumatic event. However, those who serve in the military, especially those who see combat, have an increased risk of developing the condition. The symptoms of PTSD fall into three categories: reliving (also called re-experiencing), avoidance, or hyperarousal.

A person with PTSD might experience flashbacks or nightmares, have physical symptoms of fear (such as shortness of breath, a beating heart, or nausea) for no immediate reason, experience episodes of intense emotions such as anger or anxiety in response to triggers, or just feel very irritable or moody. Difficulty sleeping (often related to vivid nightmares) is also common.

PTSD Is Normal To A Degree

It is normal for a person to experience some symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event; however, to be diagnosed with PTSD these symptoms must last longer than three months. Some people appear to be fine after a traumatic event but develop PTSD at a later time, sometimes years or decades after the trauma, a condition known as delayed-onset PTSD.

PTSD is one of the main conditions treated at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics and hospitals, so there are specialized VA PTSD clinics around the country. Approximately 20 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. The VA webpage has a section devoted solely to PTSD to provide information to veterans, loved ones and professionals.

Developing Late In Life

Some Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD since returning from the war. However, some veterans find that they are experiencing symptoms for the first time, over 40 years since they saw combat. This is not unusual. Life changes that occur later in life, such as retirement or the loss of a spouse, can trigger PTSD, even after so much time has passed since a person experienced the trauma. For many, the PTSD symptoms, or other symptoms like anger, anxiety, stress, and fear, might have been present all along, but managed through throwing oneself into work and concentrating on their family.

The average age of the estimated 2.7 million Vietnam veterans is 64. Many of the veterans are now retiring, so they no longer have the stresses of work. Additionally, their children have often left home and their spouse might have passed away, leading to an emptier and less structured life. These veterans can no longer rely on work or family to keep them busy, occupied, and not thinking about the war, as they have done for the past four decades. Instead, many find themselves remembering the past and recollecting the trauma they went through in combat, which can trigger PTSD.

PTSD Triggers

PTSD can also be triggered when someone experiences another traumatic experience, such as being diagnosed with a serious illness or the passing of a spouse. Some experts also hypothesize that seeing clips of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might trigger PTSD in Vietnam veterans.

An unrelated study has shown that people can experience more acute stress from watching news coverage for 6 hours or more than those who were actually at a traumatic event, such as the Boston Marathon bombings or 9/11 terrorist attacks. These findings and other studies demonstrate that seeing these images on the screen can trigger a stress response, and possibly even PTSD in those who have been through a traumatic experience, such as Vietnam veterans.

Trouble Getting Treatment through VA Benefits

For many veterans, getting treatment for their PTSD is as easy as contacting their local VA clinic. It is now a recognized mental disorder, and the VA helps many veterans receive the treatment they need. However, there is a portion of Vietnam veterans unable to get the necessary treatment—and the benefits they deserve—from the VA, and they might not be able to otherwise afford to get treatment.

PTSD was not an official diagnosis until 1980. Many of those who served in Vietnam experienced symptoms of PSTD, frequently resulting in dishonorable discharges from the military because of the lack of knowledge about the disorder. This discharge status prevents them from getting medical treatment or disability benefits. Unless their discharge status is upgraded to an honorable discharge, they cannot get any help from the VA for PTSD caused by their service in Vietnam.

However, doing so is a long, complicated task. First, they have to prove they have PTSD caused by their military service. Then, they have to get their discharge overturned. This can be an arduous task, taking a long time including possibly having to make several appeals, and it may not even end with them getting their discharge overturned. This is why the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is advocating in Congress to get these PTSD dishonorable discharges overturned so the veterans can get the benefits they deserve.

Yale Law School Win

Recently, one veteran, John. H. Shepherd, Jr. took charge and brought a class action law suit against the Department of Defense to get his status upgraded in order to get his benefits and treatment for his PTSD, with the help of Yale Law School. Yale Law School has a veterans’ legal clinic, created in 2010, where students provide legal services for veterans. It is one of the few clinics in America dedicated to helping individual veterans and veterans’ organizations, providing assistance with discharge upgrades, requests through the Freedom of Information Act, and benefits claims.

Shepherd served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and earned a Bronze Star with Valor citation, which is the fourth-highest award for valor in combat in the Army. He received an Other-Than-Honorable discharge after he began to have symptoms of PTSD. He has struggled for years, unable to get disability benefits or treatment for his PTSD due to his discharge status. He tried four times to get his status changed by the army without success.

Veterans Legal Services Clinic

He received help by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic and filed a proposed class action lawsuit in October of 2012. He accused the Army of not properly considering the evidence of PTSD when reviewing discharge upgrade applications from Vietnam veterans. On November 1, 2013, the case, Shepherd v. McHugh, was dismissed after the Army settled to upgrade his status and pay attorney fees.

Shepherd will now get his disability benefits and can get the treatment he needs for his PTSD from the VA hospital, which has left him homeless and unemployed for four decades. However, this helps only one man. Hopefully, the army and other branches of the military will similarly recognize the affect of PTSD on Vietnam veterans and ensure they get the help they need. Recently (on January 21, 2014), The Daily Show with Jon Stewart produced a five-minute clip with the Yale law students and Mr. Shepherd to discuss this situation and give it more recognition.

Treatment for PTSD

It is important to seek professional help for PTSD. Many veterans can obtain the treatment they need without a problem by going to one of the specialized VA clinics around the country. There are also dedicated facilities, such as Sovereign Health, that can help a person recover from PTSD, along with any co-occurring conditions such as substance abuse or depression, whether a person is a veteran or not.

Psychotherapy is the most important element of treatment for PTSD, although a holistic approach to treatment will facilitate a better recovery that reduces the risk of relapse. In addition to a structured treatment program, exercise, eating healthy, engaging socially, remaining active, relaxing, meditation, yoga and stress relief will help to relieve some of the symptoms and triggers of PTSD.

Additionally, for Vietnam veterans retiring and facing an empty home, finding hobbies or a place to volunteer helps them remain active and socially engaged. However, a person should be careful not to continue to repress emotions and memories by staying busy. The best help will come from working with a licensed professional to discuss the initial traumatic event, as well as any subsequent traumas or negative life events, such as a chronic illness, losing a spouse or loved one, or children moving out.

Sovereign Health Group provides treatment for mental health disorders, eating disorders, addiction, and co-occurring disorders. We are accredited by the Joint Commission and dually licensed to treat substance abuse and mental health disorders. To learn more about our programs, call us at 866-264-9778.

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