Mental Health & the Military: Interview with a Vietnam Veteran

Merely Me Health Guide


    We owe our lives to them.  And our freedom.  I am talking about all the men and women who have served in the military over the years.  They have taken care of us.  But who takes care of them?  The time spent in war can take a toll on the strongest among us.  We hear about depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as some of the possible side effects to time spent serving in the military.  But how is it really?  How does the military deal with mental health problems?   And how does one cope with all the unimaginable stressors of military life?


    In order to get some answers to these questions I sought the help of two courageous individuals who have both served our country during times of war.  The interviews I am about to present to you this week are very different perspectives of the same theme. You will get to see how time has drastically influenced how we deal with mental health issues in the military. 

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    My first interview is with Paul who you may all know from this site.  Paul is an active member of our community and gives his support and compassion to anyone who needs it.  But what you may not know about Paul is that he is a Vietnam War veteran.  His candid interview is very eye opening about what life was like for a young man far from home in a war torn country.  His story is no less poignant now as it was then.  And by the way, the handsome young man on the right hand side of this photo is Paul as he was some decades ago during his service in Vietnam.


    I now present to you, Paul.



    I enlisted in the Army for Infantry when I was 17 years old, Just after graduation, I was sent to Ft. Knox, Ky. for my basic training. Went to Ft. Gordon, Ga. for Advanced Infantry training and was sent to Ft. Riley, Ks. as a rifleman with the 4th Cavalry, 1st  Inf. Div.


    I volunteered for service in Vietnam.  At the time, there were only Marine units in northern South Vietnam and the 173rd Airborne around Saigon.  I was sent to a unit about 30 miles south of Saigon, in Mytho, basically to carry a radio for advisors to the Headquarters of the 7th ARNV Inf. Div.


    I did that for six months, then when the 1st Inf. Div. was sent over, I transferred back but ended up with the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Brigade. I carried an M -79 grenade launcher and a .45 pistol.


    My year of service there spanned 1965-66.


    Can you tell us what it was like to serve in Vietnam?  What was a typical day like for you there? 


    My time in Mytho seemd an endless trudging through rice paddies, being out with contingents of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units. Searching for and engaging local Viet Cong units.


    We lived with these soldiers, knew their families who lived with them, learned a bit of their language and culture, I loved the people there. I associated freely and mostly did what they did.


    When I transferred back to the 1st Inf Div., it was a different atmosphere. They were based in their own large enclave at Bear Cat, did not mix with the Vietnamese, a lot did not like them, a lot did not want to be there.


    We went on field operations, the longest of which lasted 28 days to engage Viet Cong or North Vietnamese units, search and destroy missions they were called.  Monotonous days of walking, times of sheer terror, some days and nights. Exhaustion. heat, no water, tongues swelled, insects, ants, traps, tunnels, bullets, explosives, torrential rain, feet rotting, rubber tree plantations where you could walk for days without leaving, and surrounding jungle which you could not walk through without cutting. Nights so dark.


    I could go on and on. 


    How did you cope with being so far away from home?  How did you keep your spirits up? 

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    Friends you made, the complete trust and reliance on each other. Letters from my mother almost every day were a big help. Every once in a while, a care pakage from home, once containing a concotion by my sisters attempt at making fudge. Horrible stuff. :)  Knowing after a year you would be going home. An ice cold drink... a shower, a cot, clean socks, a record player I had bought, music. Writing letters but keeping parts out, it felt good to think of home.


    There was no choice but to cope, we depended on each other and there was no such thing as PTSD that we knew of, I guess the term back then was shell shocked... If there were a few who broke, they were quietly transferred out of the unit, destination unknown.


    Do you feel that people who serve in the military are more at risk for developing depression or other mood disorders? 


     I'd have to say no, not when I was in the military, with qualifiers.


    There was a draft at the time, many people were taken from their homes, they had no choice. But even among volunteers there was, at first, a loss of home, friends, all things familiar and there was no going back. You faced severe punishment if you tried to walk away, but to me and many, you faced shame in front of your family, which was even worse.


    I think in that respect, at least temporarily, some suffered depression and other problems, perhaps changing somehow, forever. I didn't see a lot of overt mental disorders; the Army was pretty good at weeding those out and discharging them. Mostly, the men adjusted and found interests and friends, finishing their commitments, or staying in the service even longer.


    Some of those who were witness to the destruction and horror surely had problems and were not able to resume their interrupted lives. Most were able though. I think those who could not, have faced bleak futures since then.


    The men and women serving, for the most part, are highly motivated and operate as a team. I think they are well trained and supported. In general military life. Except for the spouses perhaps, I do not think they suffer as many disorders. Just my opinion.


    Was there any support given for those serving who had mental health issues?  What about for those who returned home?  How were these sorts of issues handled? 


    No, not that I was aware of. There were no counseling services, no 800 numbers, no Internet, no video chats, emails, or phone calls. Only letters, snail mail - it was free, but that was it.


    If you had a mental problem, and I only saw a few, if any, they would be taken out of your unit and usually discharged and sent home with a General or Medical discharge. If there was any mental health assistance during my three years, I never heard of it. 


    There were VA hospitals where there was, I've no doubt, some treatment for mental health issues but most soldiers took everything home. As time went by, and the unpopularity of the war grew, some had unfriendly encounters with their fellow citizens, or watched the nightly news and were belittled, accused, mistrusted, mocked and insulted often, and withdrew essentially from life, or from those who didn't understand, sticking to the last good they knew, their military life, or trying to forget it all.

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    They became a country's problem, loners, bitter, unable to leave that last good time, unable to accept being derisively attacked in such furor... I believe many mental problems started then, not in Vietnam, but here, in America.


    Have you known anyone who has developed post traumatic stress disorder as the result of their experiences in Vietnam? 


    Again, as I said, that was a term I never heard of then. If anyone showed sign of a mental problem, if there was any treatment available for them, I wasn't aware of it. I have had friends killed and wounded but have not known any who had mental problems which they allowed to show. Private conversations, tears, yes. There are personal nightmares; thoughts. Many people can compartmentalize and move on in other areas of life. They never forget.


    I have never known one who came back unscathed, but also, fortunately, never knew one who couldn't cope. Which doesn't help the interview perhaps, but is the truth.


    What do you feel are the differences between then and now with respect to how the military addresses mental health issues?  


    Not being familiar with the current practices of the military toward mental illness, except through the news, I can speculate that because terms such as PTSD are used and accepted now, there has been a change toward those who suffer mental disorders because of their time in hazardous areas.


    It is an awesome responsibility we place on our military, high demands and expectations that they perform spectacularly all the time for us. That they be ready to do whatever the President decides regardless of their personal outlook. I think the burdens have increased and I hope with that, came the realization that these men and women may need the benefit of a maturing psychological field, without jeopardizing their fellow soldiers or families welfare, or themselves.


    I think, back then, they weeded you out and sent you home with an address of a VA hospital and their best wishes, if that. Now? I hope there is a better way to handle people who asked to serve and did their best and perhaps, seen too much. I do not know.


    Any last words?  Any words of support or encouragement to those still serving in Iraq and for their loved ones? 


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    Don't come back wishing to live in the past. To become a professional complainer, to think that you are owed the rest of your life by your country, but to seek out and use all rights and protections awarded by a grateful country, including medical and mental services. There is no shame in needing help in dealing with what you went through.


    Resume your education immediately using all the rights and benefits of the G.I. Bill, or whatever it is called now. Take advantage of the help offered to train you for your future civilian career. Make that your priority.


    To each of you and your families, I thank you for giving yourself willingly to our country's defense, losing three or more years of your life, to the care, guidance and bidding of whoever sits in the White House, even if you disagreed with their direction. Thank you to your families for accepting your absence and coping without you for us.


    I recommend this site, this writer and all of these people to any veteran or current military personnel as caring about you. This is a place you can be safe, be understood, and which you also can help others as they do, as you are helped. No cures yet, just good people and their experience.






Published On: July 12, 2009