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Vietnam Veteran's Problems

Sgt. 1st Class Riley and his tearful wife visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Statue in Washington, DC during the National Victory Celebration, held in honor of the coalition forces' liberation of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. 8 June 1991
Sgt. 1st Class Riley and his tearful wife visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Statue in Washington, DC during the National Victory Celebration, held in honor of the coalition forces' liberation of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. 8 June 1991.

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1 Nov 1943 US Marines land at Empress Augusta Bay, on west coast of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands [Operation Goodtime].
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Vietnam War: Veteran's Problems

Vietnam was unique in that America failed to welcome its veterans back as heroes. Vietnam veterans were blamed for the war and the failure of the war to meet its objectives. Shamefully, many veterans were attacked personally by opponents of the war. There are many reports of veterans being verbally abused or even spat upon as they disembarked at the airport. Veterans were uncomfortable wearing their uniform in public due fear of such abusive attacks. This attitude toward military people serving their country with honor was a disgrace, should not have happened, and must never happen again.

The approximately 2.8 million veterans of the Vietnam War had a vast range of experiences during their service. Some saw combat and were permanently scarred by it, if they survived. Others had a life little different from peacetime military duty. This section reviews some of the problems specific to Vietnam experienced by many veterans of the war.

Combat Stress and PTSD Associated with Vietnam

Vietnam veterans of Ia Drang are reflected in the polished granite of the Vietnam Wall on Veterans Day, 11 November 2005, at a special event marking the 40th anniversary of the battle of Pleiku-Ia Drang
Vietnam veterans of Ia Drang are reflected in the polished granite of the Vietnam Wall on Veterans Day, 11 November 2005, at a special event marking the 40th anniversary of the battle of Pleiku-Ia Drang.

Every war has caused severe stress and even mental breakdown among combat soldiers. Vietnam was extremely stressful for many reasons, including:

  • Inevitable combat stress, magnified by unfamiliar surroundings such as jungle warfare
  • Lack of clear progress to the war and the ultimate U.S. withdrawal, contributing to feelings of exploitation
  • Lack of unit cohesiveness in Vietnam -- soldiers joined units as individuals and left when their tour was completed
  • Air transport home at end of tour created an abrupt transition from combat to civilian life
  • The military-hostile civilian environment experienced upon return to the U.S.

As scientific understanding of the effects of combat has improved the syndrome has advanced from being labeled "shell shock" to more modern nomenclature such as "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)". Vietnam vets have suffered from these mental and emotional after-effects, but not out of proportion to their numbers. Neuropsychiatric casualty rates in Vietnam paralleled those in the U.S. until 1970 when rates rose rather precipitously. This was attributed to ongoing withdrawal of American forces, the news of lack of support on the home front, and a growing substance abuse problem because a breakdown of discipline and the local availability of cheap drugs, part of a world-wide epidemic of drug use. Long term studies have shown that about 15-30% of Vietnam veterans have had at least one episode of PTSD, and well over half of former prisoners of war have PTSD. These figures are similar to other American wars or even stressful occupations.

For other types of personal problems, such as imprisonment or suicide, the rate among Vietnam vets is low and very similar to the rate for non-vets of the same age, especially when beyond five years post-Vietnam.

To help vets and their families, the VA has established specialized PTSD programs and related services, available at VA medical centers.

Environmental and Health Hazards of Vietnam Duty

In addition to the risks inherent in combat, troops experienced many environmental hazards in Vietnam. Vietnam is a tropical country with high temperatures, high humidity and a monsoon climate. Many troops were constantly wet or damp, unable to get dry for days, opportunities for bathing were infrequent, and skin hygiene was poor. Under those conditions, bacterial and fungal infections of the feet were a major cause of temporary disability. Skin disease was a leading cause of outpatient visits and hospitalization. Throughout the war, disease accounted for 70.6% of all medical admissions with the remaining approximately equally divided between battle casualties (15.6%) and non-battle injury (13.8%).

Tropical diseases were frequent with malaria the most important. Over 40,000 cases of malaria were reported in Army troops alone between 1965 and 1970, with 78 deaths. However, this was better than in earlier wars because of the effectiveness of weekly chloroquin-premaquin prophylaxis against vivax malaria. Diarrheal diseases were also common. Cholera was epidemic in Vietnam but not a single case of cholera was seen in the highly immunized, well nourished US troops. Meliodosis was a relatively rare disease caused by pseudomonas pseudomallei but well publicized after 8 of the 29 cases diagnosed in 1966 died. It was also publicized after the war by Dow Chemical, which erroneously hypothesized that the symptoms of Vietnam veterans after the war were due Meliodosis, not Agent Orange.

Agent Orange in Vietnam

Added to all other risks in Vietnam, military operations commonly included use of pesticide and herbicide spraying. Approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides were used in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971 to remove unwanted plant life and leaves which otherwise provided cover for enemy forces during the Vietnam Conflict. Shortly following their military service in Vietnam, some veterans reported a variety of health problems and concerns which some of them attributed to exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides. After years of debate, Congress directed the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a comprehensive review and evaluation of the available scientific and medical literature on Agent Orange and the other herbicides used in Vietnam. As a result of the first two reviews, published in 1994 and 1996, VA now recognizes eight conditions which are presumed to be related to service in Vietnam for the purposes of establishing service-connection: soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, acute periperal neuropathy, and spina bifida in offspring.

The VA has established a special website regarding Agent Orange with information about programs and benefits.

Recommended Book about Vietnam War Veterans

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