One of our favorite writers, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in PTSD, returns to remind us of how far we’ve come, and to encourage us to keep it going.
By Mary Tendall
Here at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, many (if not most) Vietnam veterans would never have believed that they would live to see this year. Indeed, it is a time of reflection as well as a time to settle into a look at the future. Most Vietnam veterans would admit that life is easier now in many ways. Finding a job, sustaining employment, finding a mate (or ending a relationship), raising a family, and struggling with society’s expectations have somehow been defused as they have gotten older.
In some ways life may be easier now but memories and nightmares may still cause problems
But it is also true that because of retirement, physical limitations and pain, and other struggles, many Vietnam veterans are now having lucid memories of combat and increased nightmares, due to a more sedentary lifestyle. While it is imperative that our nation remain mindful of the needs of young veterans returning from the Middle East, it is also a fact that many Vietnam veterans are –at this stage of their lives – experiencing increased depression along with other symptoms related to combat.
Many even express having the same nightmare of being called back into combat, (and being older and out of touch), they are unable to find their gear or find the bus, and they are missing important information to forge ahead with their mission. (I would like to hear from those of you who have had a version of that dream/nightmare.)
Anyone who has been deployed to a combat zone has not lived an average life.
Those who have sought effective treatment individually or in groups are often seen at VA hospitals and clinics just hanging out with the younger veterans who have served in the Middle East. Listening to someone who has been in a combat zone is a real service to the new veterans. A Vietnam veteran named Rick* recently said, “At least I can finally say that my experience in Nam is helping me to help these guys. And it does my heart good to do something this meaningful.”
How is the “average Vietnam veteran” these days?
But what about the other veterans? I have been asked over and over, “How is the average Vietnam veteran doing today?” but I have found that there is no such thing as an average veteran. Anyone who has been deployed to a combat zone has not lived an average life by our cultural standards.
Sid,* who served two tours in Vietnam, told me that until he retired a few years ago, he didn’t realize he had been impacted much at all by his combat experience. He had finished college “as an escape” following his return, found good employment, married, and raised a family. “All was well, or so I thought,” he said. But three years ago Sid’s wife passed away unexpectedly, and while going through her things, he discovered her journals, dating back to 1979. He was shocked when he read of her frustration with their lack of an active social life, her desire for more emotional intimacy, and her sadness when she witnessed his fitful sleep. Her heartfelt concern for what she called “his troubles” left him feeling anguished, yet deeply loved. “How could I have missed seeing what she was feeling for all those years?”
He now realizes that he had been fooling himself as he made excuses limiting his attendance at school events and family or social gatherings. He took medication to sleep, and never told his wife or doctor about the nightmares. Reading his wife’s journals opened him up to talk with his adult children about what he had read, and that conversation was the beginning of an ongoing close communication and understanding for himself and his children. “That was the best thing that ever happened for us.”
His biggest regret is that he never was able to communicate to his wife the reason why he avoided so many things that were important to her.
He feels closer than ever to his daughter and two sons, and is now devoting more time to his grandchildren. Sid can now talk about aspects of his combat experience, and this has opened up an online dialog with many of the men from his unit. He realizes that overall he actually has done well, but his biggest regret is that he never was able to communicate to his wife the reason why he avoided so many things that were important to her. It is not too late for him and the rest of his family. Is Sid an average Vietnam veteran? No.
Another Vietnam veteran, Cal is now out of debt for the first time in his life, thanks to his Social Security check, and because he is finally receiving 100 percent disability payments from the VA. He thought that would be the end of his troubles. But after three marriages, estrangement from some of his children, and finally seeking help, he is able to reflect on his past and present limitations. Things changed recently for Cal after he was encouraged to attend a Soldier’s Heart retreat in another state. Following that significant and powerful three days and nights, he became committed to helping younger veterans. “I was myself there when looking at and listening to those new young men and women who had recently served. I don’t want to see them end up making my mistakes.” Cal is not an average Vietnam veteran.
Ace is a homeless Vietnam veteran. He spends most of his time in shelters, where he helps out whenever he can. He said that he spent his first night after returning home from Vietnam in jail, following a “confrontation with protestors” who met his bus. “I went downhill from there.” Although he is sober now, Ace spent most of his adult life drinking and doing odd jobs to survive and to support his addictions. He now has serious health issues and says, “I wish God would just take me. I’m too tired to do it myself.” Is Ace an average Vietnam veteran? No. By no means.
There are services available, but not enough people to really offer what is truly needed to bring a combat veteran all the way home.
The VA is helping, but there’s still a long way to go. In spite of the many valuable services the VA provides, there is an enormous void when it comes to giving returning combat veterans effective treatment following combat. Combat vets come home in “combat mode,” and I have yet to see adequate treatment or understanding that treats veterans and teaches them the “why and the how” of retraining the central nervous system to find its place back home. So the many regrets of losses and irreversible choices made in the past can come back in this stage of life. Over and over I hear them say, “I hope these new soldiers seek help, and don’t wait as long as I did.” But it is not too late to utilize what is out there right now to create full and enriched senior years.
These men all sound so different, and they are. But they also have one thing in common in that they served in Vietnam, and they encountered adjustment issues after their return. For some, life has been pretty good, and for others it has been a constant struggle. There are services available, but not enough people to really offer what is truly needed to bring a combat veteran all the way home. The good news is that there is much you can do on your own to help make that happen.
Ideas for Helping Yourself
- Find treatment within the VA, or elsewhere, that offers a neurosomatic (mind/body) approach to resolving severe challenges. (Ex-amples: Brainspotting, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, etc.)
- Join a group of Vietnam veterans at the nearest Vet Center, VA facility, or VietNow. You will be able to normalize your challenges, and offer support to others.
- Find a place where new veterans hang out (such as the cafeteria at a VA hospital), and offer them support and advice about navigating through the system.
- Find a spiritual outlet, whether it is going to church or spending time in a beautiful, natural setting.
- Look up old buddies on the Internet, and renew a friendship.
- Find a safe and healthy way to exercise on a consistent basis.
- Adopt a healthy diet. Start eating right.
- Limit your television watching. Turn it off once in awhile.
- Maintain a consistent schedule for sleeping and being awake.
- Seek out family members if possible, and spend time with grandkids if you have them.
- Get a pet if you don’t already have one. Dogs, cats, and horses seem to be preferred.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Mary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.