By: Lisa M. Smith
Over the years, we have witnessed the devastation War has done to our soldiers and veterans. The Vietnam War reared its ugly affects on U.S. soldiers. 58,000 Americans were killed and more than 150,000 were injured in battle. The Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 marked the end of this bloody war.
Presently, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the longest combat operations since Vietnam. Many of the problems Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing are the same problem Vietnam soldiers faced. Suicide rates among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are just as high as the rates among Vietnam Veterans. Suicide has taken the lives of more soldiers than the actual wars. War Service members are constantly at risk for death or injury. They may see others hurt or killed or they may have to kill or wound others. They are constantly on alert of their surroundings. These and other factors can increase their chances of having Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder or other mental health issues.
A Closer Look at Components of PSTD
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyperarousal).
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include: flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time and/or upsetting dreams about the traumatic event.
Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include: trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event, feeling emotionally numb, avoiding activities you once enjoyed, hopelessness about the future, memory problems, trouble concentrating, difficulty maintaining close relationships.
Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include: irritability or anger, overwhelming guilt or shame, self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much, trouble sleeping, being easily startled or frightened, hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.
Sidney A. Lee, a veteran and activist, believes Black soldiers are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than other soldiers as they are assigned to combat units in higher numbers than other soldiers. According to Lee, because of the higher number of soldiers with PTSD, more Black soldiers therefore take their own lives.
He further states Black soldiers have “difficulty” scoring high on the tests that would grant them access a military occupational specialties (MOS) not associated with the front lines. He goes on to say although Blacks were 11% of the U.S. population from 1965-1969, they made up 12% of all troops in Vietnam and had a 14.9% fatality rate. Lee blames the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) of neglecting the needs of Black soldiers and highlights a recent lawsuit in which the plaintiffs highlight the VA’s poor care. Black soldiers are being put in combat situations in greater numbers than they were in Vietnam, which is in turn resulting in more PTSD among their ranks.
Additionally, it has been reported that out of the 150,000 women who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, 23% of them are African-American. They are suffering PTSD at disproportionate rates. Women in general are more likely than men to suffer from PTSD, and the military environment enhances it. Female soldiers are more likely to face traumatic sexual assaults, which many go unreported.
Black women who suffer in silence with PTSD is known for being being strong caretakers. It hurts them, too much to seek help.
Family dealing with PTSD
PTSD can make somebody hard to be with. Undoubtably, if PTSD goes untreated or is overlooked, it can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, violent and erratic outbursts and an inability to hold down a steady job. And those problems are all things that lead to instability in personal relationships and financial health. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, early research on PTSD has shown the harmful impact of PTSD on families.
This research showed that Vietnam Veterans with PSTD had marital problems and family violence. Their partners had more distress and their children had more behaviorial problems than those of Veterans without PTSD. Veterans with the most severe symptoms had families with the worst functioning. The same issues are plaguing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and families. Common reactions of family members could suffer from sympathy, avoidance, depression, anger/guilt, and health problems.
Michelle Brown, author of “This Girl’s Life: Being the child of a war veteran”, wrote a memoir about living with her father after he returned from the Vietnam war. She stated that “he came back from Vietnam thinking she was the emeny.” He would beat her and her siblings. In an excerpt from her book, Brown states, “My mom, Della, told me that Rico (her dad) wasn’t violent until he went into war. Rico would sometimes tell us about when he was in the war watching all his friends get their heads blown off. Rico would say he had to eat rats over there. In fact, my dad had his foot bitten by a rat. He had Agent Orange sprayed on him. He would say that the Army would teach them to be heartless, but I still say he didn’t have to take those things out on us, his children. … In Vietnam, the Army would give the men medicine to take so they wouldn’t get horny and want to have sex. … My father told my mom he couldn’t love his children, because what if we died on him? He said his family looked like the enemy. … My mom says my dad would send her pictures when he was in the war of men with their heads blown off, no legs … dead. Just horrifying pictures.” Before he died from drug and alcohol abuse, he apologized to her for the years of abuse, however, the damage was already done.
Family and friends of veterans look for assistance for them. It’s important that when dealing with the individual that you be patient and understanding, try to prepare for PTSD triggers (such as anniversary dates; people and/or places associated with the trauma; certain sights, sounds, or smells) and do not pressure the individual into talking about their traumatic experiences. To find out more about the resources and benefits available, call the VA Health Benefits Service Center at 1-877-222-VETS.