For retiring Vietnam veterans, a resurgence of PTSD symptoms

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

Our reporting on veterans’ issues has focused almost exclusively on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. It is not to minimize the ongoing struggles of Vietnam veterans. In fact, we often look to the research on Vietnam veterans for some understanding of what might lie ahead for the younger veterans we’re meeting.

So my interest was piqued when I stumbled across a story, now several months old, about Vietnam veterans experiencing a recurrence of PTSD symptoms … in retirement.

In “Retirement might unleash PTSD symptoms in Vietnam veterans,” an article published by Stars and Stripes in June 2012, Leo Shane III talks to veteran Sam Luna, who retired in 2004.

From the article:

“‘I didn’t realize anything was wrong,’ the combat-wounded Vietnam veteran said. ‘I thought I had adjusted well after I came back. I had a job, I had a family, everything looked great from the outside.’

“But shortly after he retired in 2004, his anxiety attacks and stress levels increased. A trip to his local Veterans Affairs hospital triggered war memories. The former soldier started to notice the hair-trigger temper his wife had complained about for years.

“He found himself thinking more often about the war — and the friends he lost.”

Luna has a vivid way of describing the return of his wartime experiences and post-war struggles: “It was like I had a black box on the mantel for years, but I could ignore it when I left for work every day … When I retired, it was still sitting there, waiting for me.”

Here’s Luna talking about the “black box” and his post-retirment experience:

I poked around for data that might reflect Luna’s experience and I found something in a 2007 update to the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study, which was launched by Congress in 1983 to look into the psychological issues veterans were still experiencing eight years after the war’s end.

The study puts the rate of what is called “lifetime PTSD” among veterans of the Vietnam theater (which they describe as “men and women who served on active duty in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia”) at 30.9 percent for men and 26.9 percent for women.

According to the Stars and Stripes article, there was a dramatic increase in the number of veterans receiving PTSD treatments between 2006 and 2011 — from 272,000 to more than 476,000:

“Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make up a large portion of that increase but still account for only about one-fifth of all PTSD patients. More than half of the new cases come from earlier wars.

“The rise may be explained by Luna’s black box, but the isolation of retirement causing a return of PTSD symptoms is just a theory.”

When the readjustment study was updated in 2007, National Public Radio interviewed John Wilson, a psychologist and expert on PTSD and Vietnam veterans:

“[Wilson] said he doesn’t buy the idea that aging and retirement are major factors in and of themselves. He said he believes the war in Iraq is a major factor.

“Wilson said he does know how things get revisited. For example, he notes that when Stephen Spielberg’s movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was released, World War II veterans flooded the VA for help.

“‘It got to the point where the VA had to create a crisis line for vets having flashbacks of their war experiences,’ Wilson said.

“These veterans may have been approaching the end of their lives, but it’s not only the issue of aging, Wilson said.

“‘There’s the whole question of meaning. There are more existential questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of sacrifice, the meaning of what the war did to one’s life,’ Wilson said. ‘In my experience with Vietnam veterans, there’s not a day that goes by that they don’t think about the war.’”