During the course of their lives, everyone experiences trauma. Whether it is the loss of a grandparent, having a relationship with a significant other end, or having to put down a beloved family pet, traumatic experiences help shape one’s world view. One will usually find it difficult to put trauma into words, as it affects a person on a spiritual, physical, and emotional level. This is how many veterans of foreign wars feel after returning home. How can a veteran describe what it is like to be under fire day and night, to watch young men their own age die in front of them, and to be thousands of miles away from friends and family? It seems to be an impossible task. This phenomenon was particularly evident after the end of the Vietnam War, as studies of veterans returning with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became more frequent. As awareness of PTSD increased in the years following the Vietnam War, it was observed that veterans suffering from PTSD experienced more strain on their familial relationships, even though more veterans of Vietnam utilized the G.I. Bill, and were offered better treatment for their psychological issues.
As mentioned in prior research papers, American society once had a stigma against seeking help for mental illnesses. Mental illness was viewed as something to be ashamed of, and it was considered a sign of weakness to seek help for psychological issues. This cultural norm may seem appalling to modern-day American citizens, and with just cause. Soldiers experiencing intense hallucinations, anxiety, or depression when returning home from battle were taught to keep it inside, and to tough it out by themselves. For the first time, however, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, veterans began to be encouraged to seek help for their mental health problems. In fact, by 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was officially recognized as a psychological disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. This was an extremely important stride in helping returning veterans that suffered from the effects of PTSD, because the first step to recovery from mental illness is diagnosis. PTSD was defined as “night-mares, loss of control over behavior, emotional numbing and withdrawal from the environment, hyper-alertness, and anxiety and depression” (Shehan 55). There were even reasons enumerated for why it was believed that battle field related PTSD occurred. These included constant fear of death, intense feelings of loss, persistent guilt, and daily disruption and destruction (Constance 55-56). Due to this increase in knowledge about the harsh realities of PTSD, social scientists and psychologists were able to study its effects on families, and observe ways to help these families survive the difficulties of the mental illness.
As one would expect, it was observed that families with a veteran that suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder experienced increased amounts of spousal tension and relational strains. There are many obvious reasons that there were increased relational strains, including the fact that it is simply difficult to be patient with a person that has a psychological illness. The biggest problem that couples faced with a soldier returned with PTSD is that it caused breakdowns in communication (Shehan 56). As discussed before, veterans that suffer from this disorder have a difficult time expressing themselves, and being able to articulate the trials that they faced on a daily basis. How can one describe to their wife that they can still actually smell the gunpowder or hear the shells exploding? It is impossible for a veteran to convey this to a civilian, and can cause immense amounts of tension. Wives and girlfriends would become increasingly frustrated, as their significant others suffered silently, and seemingly could not be helped. Another, much more destructive quality of many returning veterans was an explosive temper. This led to irrational, dangerous, and terrifying behavior from the suffering soldier, that could make daily life almost unbearable.
For those that have not been exposed to a person that is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it may be difficult to understand how difficult it is to deal with. First-hand accounts, however, can offer the unexposed civilian a glimpse into the lives of those affected by PTSD. The first account that offers insight into the lives of families with husbands suffering from the disorder is a wive’s observation of the changes in her husband. She said “”Vietnam ruined our lives. I keep remembering the Alan of before. He was affectionate, considerate, kind. When he returned, he had a quick temper, no patience, could not concentrate … right now I do not like him.” (Shehan 57). This observation helps illuminate the earlier point that it is simply more difficult to live with a victim of PTSD. He returned from the war a completely changed man, and his wife’s satisfaction with the marriage decreased significantly. A second account reveals that irrational and paranoid behavior increased dissatisfaction as well. A different soldier’s wife recalls that one time upon returning from work, he “flew into a rage because someone had forgotten to set the fork and spoon at his place. He thought we did that on purpose, that we didn’t want him there! ” (Shehan 58). This helps further illuminate the fact that communication breakdown was a byproduct of PTSD. His irrational behavior would push away his wife and children, and create a rift between himself and the rest of his family. The final firsthand account, this time from a soldier himself, reveals how dangerous the anger from PTSD can be. This soldier recollects a particularly horrifying incident in which he returned home to find his wife and neighbor looking at a photo album. He remembers that “We started looking at the album and I just flipped out. I started throwing shit everywhere. I beat my wife over the head with a full quart bottle of beer. I had a handful of butcher knives in each hand and I was threatening to cut them (Shehan 56). Most people do not realize that PTSD is terrifying, for both the person that is suffering from it and those that are surrounding them. This helps explain a phenomena that plagued households with a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress. This phenomenon is called communication apprehension. Communication apprehension is when the “emotional and psychological cost of communicating with spouse outweighs possible benefits of interacting” (Shehan 58). In other words, for fear of receiving verbal abuse, or at times much worse, prevented wives and children from even talking to their father at all, causing a rift that could be insurmountable. This is because the only thing worse for a relationship than negative communication behavior is no communication at all. It further alienated the suffering veteran, and may have caused symptoms to become worse. Even though PTSD is a very sad and disturbing disorder, the veterans of Vietnam had it better than the generations before them. As the years progressed after the finish of the war, many Veterans utilized government programs to help themselves, while therapists, other veterans, and wives learned how to help the suffering veterans assimilate back into society.
One of the most important keys to a successful assimilation back into society following the Vietnam War was forming healthy relationships with other veterans. This is because it is important to have someone to relate to the horrors that they experienced, and be able to sympathize with them instead of simply empathizing with them. Unlike with their spouses and children, it was therapeutic to have someone who understood what it was like being in battle, and decreased the amount of alienation that many veterans feel after the conclusion of a war. It allowed veterans to vent their problems without fear of judgment, and this was important in decreasing anxiety and stress. It was also beneficial that there were many new studies about PTSD that came out at this time, so that family members and psychologists were able to develop strategies to help the veterans recover. Wives were encouraged to listen empathetically to their husband’s stories, and to avoid negative reactions to any atrocities that they may have committed on the battlefield. This way they could feel that they could turn to their wives without being judged, and could improve their communication. While these support systems that veterans had were vastly important, the G.I. bill helped them to achieve educational goals and earn jobs, allowing them to be productive members of society again. While it seems to be common knowledge that Vietnam veterans struggled to get back on their feet after the war, the statistics seem to suggest otherwise. A whopping sixty percent of Vietnam veterans used to G.I. bill to continue their education, and a total of sixty-four percent of veterans used the G.I. Bill in some way. This was more than any of the prior wars, so the perception that Vietnam veterans struggled more than previous veterans seems to be more of a misconception. The most telling statistic that supports this argument, however, is that Vietnam veterans’ median salary was a full twenty-four dollars more than that of the average American civilian. These telling statistics, as well as the increase in awareness of PTSD and how to help treat it illuminate the fact that while returning from war is not easy, many Vietnam veterans took advantage of the opportunities given to them to improve their lives.
For some Vietnam veterans, the horrors of war did not cease when they left the front lines. Sometimes war followed them home, seeped into their veins, and flooded their consciousness with doubt, anger, and terror. It caused them to push away their families, misdirect their anger on those they love, and sometimes fly into a violent rage, hurting those closest to them. It caused communication breakdowns between the psychologically scarred soldier and their sheltered, civilian family. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very grave mental illness that many people underestimate. Some do not realize that it can lead to domestic violence and the destruction of the nuclear family. While many veterans did suffer immensely, a large portion of those that served were able to take advantage of the psychological and financial assistance that was offered to them. Though the Vietnam veterans are often considered something of a lost generation, many were able to overcome the challenges that faced them, and assimilate successfully back into the society that they had fought for.
•Constance L. Shehan. Family Relations, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 55-60
•Eric T. Dean Jr. Journal of American Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Apr., 1992), pp. 59-74
•E. James Lieberman. Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 33, No. 4, Special Double Issue: Violence and the Family and Sexism in Family Studies, Part 2 (Nov., 1971), pp. 709-721