Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder And Vietnam Veterans Essay, Research Paper
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Vietnam Veterans
The power of the human brain is a mystery of science. For example, while certain parts of the brain are well known to control certain bodily functions, the brain’s memory capacity is just now being discovered. Scientists believe that only a small fraction of the brain is actually used, and its potential power is much greater than one may expect or believe. Its ability to view and store information is still not totally understood by scientists today. This causes a special problem in the treatment certain mental illnesses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a reaction to a traumatic event in which death, serious injury, or the threat of either is present. The most common occurrence of this illness is among veterans of war, and it is very common among those who served in Vietnam. Vietnam veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and do not receive medical treatment are at a high risk of suicide and other horrible demises. They become despondent and hard to talk to. It is as if the sufferers of PTSD are in a different reality. The traumatic events play back in their mind and they have a tough time relating with people.
Louise Erdrich illustrates this in “The Red Convertible.” The short story is about two teenage Native American boys, Lyman and Henry, and the bond of their love for each other symbolized by a red convertible. One summer they buy a red convertible and travel across North America. When they return home, the older of the two, Henry, gets drafted in the war and spends up to three years in Vietnam with several of them as a POW. When he comes back, the effects of PTSD are obvious, but medical treatment is unavailable to him on his reservation because his mother is afraid to visit the local doctor. Henry, who used to be an energetic, joking, happy-go-lucky person, is now very quiet, jumpy, and uncomfortable around other people. He just sits in front of the family’s color television firmly gripping his chair. People on the reservation find Henry strange and they do not know how to act around him. Lyman finds his brother hard to understand, so he purposely destroys the convertible, which he had kept in good shape since before the war, and believes that through Henry fixing it, their old relationship can be rekindled. For a while Henry shows a small bit of his old self as he intently works to refurbish the car. When the car is completed, Henry and Lyman go for a drive and end up drinking beer down by the flooded river. In the end, Henry “goes for a swim” in river where his boots fill with water and his painful memories are finally stopped when he drowns. (Erdrich 293-301)
Henry illustrates symptoms many Vietnam veterans have faced after the war. According to Arthur G. Neal and his book “National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major events in the American Century,” one of the main reasons Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD is that they were thrown back into society without a any sort of “ritualistic purification” (140). Neal tells us that unlike after World War II when soldiers were given parades and were praised as heroes, Vietnam veterans were badly treated by civilian Americans because of the huge disbelief in and hatred of the war (140). The lack of this purification was especially bad for those veterans who were underprivileged, such as Native Americans. These underprivileged veterans were unable to get the required medical attention to treat their disorder. The poverty that Native Americans and those of other similar demographics lived in caused a sharp difference in veterans who suffered from PTSD, as Sarah L. Knox writes in a review of Eric T. Dean, Jr.’s “’Shook over Hell’: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War” (111). Knox says Dean argues that the privileged veteran would receive better treatment and medical attention compared to his impoverished counterpart (111).
Neal also states that the communities and employers of Vietnam veterans treated them as if they had just gotten back from a vacation (140). This casual handling left veterans in a strange position. The skills they received in war were not transferable to the workplace, but the government and society did not see any reason to treat vets as different individuals (Neal 140). Adjusting to normal life, free of explosions and chaos proved to be difficult for many veterans.
The results of the war are shown in one section of “The Red Convertible.” Henry is sitting very intently watching the television when he bites though his tongue. Lyman goes to turn the television off and Henry knocks him against the wall. Henry seems not to realize that he is bleeding, even later while he is eating supper with blood dripping all over his food (Erdrich 296-297). This is just one of many common experiences of those suffering with PTSD. They often seem to feel numb to their surroundings and bodily pain. The sudden acts of violence are usually not intentionally directed toward the unsuspecting victim.
The main difficulty that veterans with the disorder face is the lack of the ability to forget unwanted memories (Neal 141). Their experiences of exploding soldiers and gunfire were so vivid that they could even smell smoke from explosions that would replay in their head. The veterans would have flashbacks of war scenes and act them out uncontrollably in the middle of the day while walking down the street. Horrible nightmares would also cause PTSD sufferers to wake up screaming in a drenching sweat (Neal 141).
The experiences of the war would often lead to personality changes. Just as Henry was quiet and hard to talk to, those suffering from PTSD have trouble communicating with others. Even close friends and relatives were not immune to this communication barrier (Neal 142). Talking about their war experiences proved to be just as difficult, if not impossible. For many, the experiences they underwent were “too painful to talk about” (Neal 141).
Other problems veterans suffering from PTSD face are a relentless feeling of unhappiness and guilt, substance abuse, and chronic physical pain (Neal 141). Some of these troubles are the result of the lack of feelings that were forced out of them in order to become good soldiers. The veterans were made in to emotionless killing machines that, when placed back into an emotion-filled world, were on the outside looking and unable to adapt. This lack of emotions along with the intense trauma experienced caused PTSD to engulf such a large amount of Vietnam veterans. This large amount of inflicted veterans along with complete lack of society and the government’s care launched PTSD in to the forefront of veteran related illnesses. The general public was able to witness first had the effects of war by simply walking down the street and seeing some crazy guy in an army coat talking fighting nothing but thin air. The resulting public outcry for government assistance proved to help everyone involved and future victims.
Though all wars have brought on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other kind of trauma related illness to its veterans, Vietnam raised true awareness of the disorder in the United States and around the world. The treatment or lack there of treatment Vietnam veterans received, directly reflected the outcome of their lives. For those represented by Henry, who were impoverished minorities lacking proper care and medical help, the outcome was almost certainly death or at best a long battle with substance abuse or ones own mind. The aftermath of Vietnam showed the government how to treat its future veterans after their wartime experiences. It also caused them to rethink the level of causalities in future wars (Knox 112). Through the use of medicines, counseling, and a fairer distribution of veteran benefits, the next group of war veterans should have a better outlook to the future and the ability to lead productive postwar lives.