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The Psychological Effects of the Vietnam War

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Psychological Battle of the Vietnam War

Emily Wingfield

B Block US History

Mr. Schuh


War causes many psychological wounds in veterans which impact their lives for years to come. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is only one of the psychological wounds that have impacted veterans of war combat over the course of American history. PTSD is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes the mental and emotional stress of individuals following exposure to a traumatic experience (“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”). Approximately 7-8% of people in the United States will suffer from PTSD at some point in their life (“How Common Is PTSD?”). PTSD has been a problem among veterans for many years. It was formerly referred to as “combat stress”, “shell shock”, and others.  The disorder was not formally acknowledged as a psychiatric disorder until the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980 (Frey, 3351). PTSD and other psychological impairments exist in many veterans regardless of the war in which they participated, however, the rate of these impairments suffered by veterans of the Vietnam War is twice that of other wars due to the unique nature of Vietnam (Wilcox and Starr, 275). In Vietnam, progress was measured by kill ratios and body counts (Wilcox and Starr, 275). In Vietnam men were taught to shoot and kill the enemy, then ask questions. Due to the fact that the war was largely based on killing and body counts rather than strategy, the Vietnam War was one of the most violent wars in United States history. This violence had a large impact on the lives of Vietnam veterans. According to a 1988 study, over the course of their lifetime, 31% of males and 27% of females who participated in the Vietnam War will have dealt with some form of PTSD (Wilcox and Starr, 274). These mental health issues have led to drug abuse, unemployment, and more. The traumatic events of the Vietnam War resulted in extremely negative effects on the mental health of the veterans, making it the most psychologically tolling wars of United States history.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common stress reaction veterans have to being present in shocking combat situations. Although it is a common reaction, there are specific criteria around the diagnosis of PTSD. Diagnosis begins with determining whether or not the individual has been exposed to a traumatic event where they themselves experienced, or witnessed, a bodily threat causing them to feel fear, horror, or helplessness (“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”). After the event, the individual must experience difficulty in three main areas for at least one month in order to be diagnosed with PTSD: persistent re-experiencing of the event, avoiding reminders of the event, or experiencing symptoms of increased autonomic arousal such as an exaggerated startle response, irritability, or angry outbursts (“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”). After it has been confirmed that the individual has experienced the aforementioned difficulties, the person can then be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD can be caused by a number of things in addition to shocking events. Military sexual trauma, or MST, can cause PTSD as well. MST is any sexual harassment or assault that happens while an individual is in the military (“How Common Is PTSD?”). Military sexual trauma is a common occurrence, 55% of women and 38% of men have experienced this, causing them to develop PTSD later in life (“How Common Is PTSD?”). There are many symptoms of PTSD: panic and paranoia, chronic anxiety, flashbacks or nightmares of the disturbing events, survivor guilt, depression, and emotional numbness (Wilcox and Starr, 275).

Suffering as many mentally jarring symptoms as that of victims of PTSD can often lead a person to turn to drugs or alcohol for escape. According to a survey taken in 1971, 29% of United States Army personnel from Vietnam participated in the use of heroin or opium (Wilcox and Starr, 277). The Harris Poll from 1971 stated that 26% of Vietnam veterans used drugs after returning home (Wilcox and Starr, 278). Due to their intense amounts of drug use, in the first five years after returning home, 69% of Vietnam veterans suffered accidental poisonings, mostly drug overdoses (Wilcox and Starr, 278). In addition to the use of drugs after returning home, many Vietnam veterans found themselves using drugs while in combat. Mike Beamon of the United States Navy stated,

“I had to be totally tuned up. We were doing Dexedrine. When we’d go out on a

mission, we’d take a whole handful of pills...When I hit Dexedrine I'd just turn

into a pair of eyeballs and ears, That's probably why I don't remember too many

of the details real well, because it was just like I was on a speed trip the whole

time I was in the field" (Denenberg, 161).

The use of drugs allowed individuals to forget the horrible things they had to witness and participate in. On top of drug abuse, PTSD can cause veterans to inflict physical harm upon themselves, some as far as committing suicide. Statistics that have been gathered since World War I, show that American combat veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide than male adults in the general population (Frey, 3353). Suicide rates are even worse for Vietnam Veterans. According to a study, the suicide rate of Vietnam veterans is 72% higher than United States veterans who were assigned to other countries (Wilcox and Starr, 279). One study found that of those individuals alive during the era of the Vietnam War, the veterans of the war have a 65% higher suicide rate than individuals who did not participate in the war (Wilcox and Starr, 278) Veterans experienced such intense amounts of trauma causing them to develop disorders such as PTSD, drug abuse, and in the worst case scenario commit suicide. The Vietnam War has had a monumental effect on the mental health of the veterans and has taken an enormous toll on their lives.

First-hand accounts from both veterans and the family members of veterans help to provide a further understanding of the effect of the Vietnam War. The time between combat and returning home was short for that of Vietnam veterans, making it more difficult to assimilate back into society and recover mentally from what they had just experienced. United States Navy serviceman John Kerry stated this struggle as;

"You know, you begin to see a lot of instant insanity and brutality that I don't

think anybody prepared you for, and then one day, all of the sudden, you're back



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