Vietnam Vet Scars Persist, Study Shows : Psychology: UCI researcher finds emotional distress most severe among those who experienced intense combat, especially those who were wounded.
In one of the first wide-ranging studies of Vietnam veterans from all walks of life, a researcher from UC Irvine has found that many still carry deep emotional scars from the conflict that ended in 1975.
“Although the Vietnam War ended decades ago,” Roxane Cohen Silver wrote in her study, released Sunday, “it is clear that the psychological consequences for its veterans continue into the present.”
Yet, said Silver, a professor at the School of Social Ecology, “in many cases it has not impaired their functioning” despite public perceptions of Vietnam vets as psychologically dysfunctional.
“They have learned to adapt to their experience,” Silver said. “The fact that people are still thinking about the war doesn’t represent pathology; it represents a normal response to an abnormal stressor.”
Silver, who teaches psychology, presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assn. in Los Angeles. The study was inspired, she said, by a Vietnam veteran’s visit to one of her classes just after the Persian Gulf War.
“I and many of my students were struck by what this gentleman was saying,” Silver recalled. “It was clear from his presentation that Vietnam vets were still living with the war even 25 years later.”
Since 1992, Silver said, she has surveyed 1,126 Vietnam veterans throughout the country on various aspects of their war and postwar experiences.
Unlike most earlier studies, which focused primarily on those who had requested help from the Veterans Administration, hers was based on data supplied by a broad range of veterans, she said, including doctors, lawyers, dentists and university professors, as well as people who were homeless and unemployed.
“We really focused on the wartime experience and the postwar social environment,” Silver said.
Among her findings:
* Current ruminations about the war and resulting distress levels were significantly greater among those who had experienced intense combat. Among those who had been injured, Silver found, the symptoms of distress approached those of psychiatric inpatients.
* Exposure to intense combat was also associated with higher levels of hostility and violent tendencies in the veterans’ current lives. In some cases, Silver said, this was evident by the amount of pressure the veterans applied to their pens while filling out the questionnaire.
* Fifty-one percent of the veterans surveyed reported homecomings that had been uncomfortable, and the more negative the homecoming, the more intense their current distress.
* Psychological adjustment was higher among those who had at least one longtime friend who was also a veteran.
* The younger the veteran was upon entering the war, the greater was his or her current level of psychological distress.
According to Silver, there are at least two important policy implications of her study. First, she said, the findings suggest that greater attention should be paid to debriefing veterans upon their return home from a war. And second, whenever possible soldiers should be sent to war when they are older rather than younger.
“I had no special agenda going in,” Silver said. “I can say with confidence that most of the research until now has focused on post-traumatic stress disorder; my study brings us into a second generation of questions to ask of the Vietnam veterans.”