VIETNAM AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD): FOUR DECADES LATER
Now that most Vietnam Veterans are in their 60s or older, and in retirement, many are experiencing “delayed stress syndrome.” After their service in Vietnam, most veterans came home and attempted to move on with their lives. They got married, started families, went back to school, returned to their prior jobs, or started new careers. In doing so, they had to put aside the horrors of their wartime experiences, choosing not to deal with them by compartmentalizing and ignoring and, in many instances, self-medicating. Today, more than forty years after the war and with more time on their hands, many veterans are being revisited by their demons.
As a result, the Veterans Administration is finding an increasing number of Vietnam Veterans seeking counseling services and medical care for PTSD-related symptoms. These symptoms include: sleep disturbances, exaggerated startle response, problems in concentration, hypervigilance, irritable or aggressive behavior, avoidance, flashbacks, relationship problems, and many more.
In the 1980s, Congress asked the Veterans Administration “to conduct a comprehensive study of the prevalence and incidence in the population of Vietnam Veterans of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological problems in readjusting to civilian life.” That study, undertaken in 1986-1988, is known as the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS).
Decades later, Congress asked the VA for a follow-up PTSD study, known as the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS). This follow-up study, conducted in 2012-2013, used the same database as the NVVRS. In other words, the Vietnam Veterans that participated in the first study were re-interviewed. Preliminary findings from the NVVLS were recently reported to Congress. Here are some results:
Mortality: Based on analyses of information reported on the death certificates of those NVVRS participants who had since died, the majority of deaths (78.7%) were caused by chronic and non-communicable diseases or “external causes, such as injuries, suicide, and drug overdose.” Male veterans who had been deployed to the Vietnam War (“theater veterans”) and who had PTSD at the time of the first study “were nearly twice as likely to have died compared to those who did not have PTSD.” Male and female theater veterans “with high exposure to warzone stress” also were “nearly twice as likely to have died as those with low or moderate warzone stress exposure.”
Mental Health: Many NVVLS participants were still experiencing PTSD in 2012-2013: 11% of male theater veterans and 7% of female theater veterans. Based on that data, the researchers extrapolated that approximately 283,000 male and 400 female theater veterans still had PTSD in 2012-13, forty or more years after their Vietnam wartime experiences. While these veterans did not all have the same levels of symptoms between the first and second studies, 13% reported increasing levels of symptoms and 7% reported consistently high symptom levels.
Physical Health & Use of VA Health Services: Because chronic health conditions tend to begin as we age, it is not surprising that veterans in the NVVLS reported more of these conditions than they did the NVVRS. On average, males reported 5.4 lifetime conditions, and females reported 6.6. Theater veterans with current PTSD were more likely than their cohorts to have multiple chronic conditions. Also, veterans with consistently high or worsening PTSD levels were more likely to have recently used VA outpatient services.
Bottom Line: Although most Vietnam Veterans are healthy today, the NVVLS findings reveal that decades after the war and the initial NVVRS, greater than a quarter million theater veterans are still “suffering from persistent and chronic PTSD symptoms related to their experiences in the war.” The real issue now is what this portends for our current and future veterans, their physical and mental health needs, and the ability of the Veterans Administration to meet those needs. With an estimated 25% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering with symptoms of PTSD, how does the VA plan to assist them? In its current state, the VA will be hard-pressed to provide timely service to these warriors.
This is where Meghan’s Foundation and similar organizations can help, by providing complimentary self-empowerment services in the form of yoga and meditation. If you know of a veteran in need, first refer them to the VA for help. They can always reach us at www.meghansfoundation.org.
The VVA Veteran, Jan/Feb 2015, Four Decades Later. William E. Schlenger & Nida H. Corry.
DSM-5, Criteria for PTSD.
The VVA Veteran, March/April 2015, Call it What You Want: Dealing with PTSD. Larry Harris.