For Many Vietnam Veterans, The War Still Isn’t Over

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Forty years after the Vietnam War, 11 percent of veterans continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have shown little improvement in their condition in recent decades, according to new research that updates an earlier study tracking Vietnam vets’ mental health. The findings suggest that, for some individuals who have experienced warfare, PTSD symptoms may plague them for their entire lives.

“The study’s key takeaway is that for some, PTSD is not going away. It is chronic and prolonged. And for veterans with PTSD, the war is not over,” Dr. William Schlenger, a lead scientist on the study, explained to USA Today.

People of color who enlisted in the military before finishing high school, as well as individuals who killed multiple people in combat, are among the veterans who are especially likely to struggle with war-related trauma for decades after their service ends. And even aside from the people who have officially been diagnosed with PTSD, the time spent in combat may continue to take a toll on vets for years to come. About a third of Vietnam veterans who are still alive say they suffer from “major depression.”

The original study was authorized by Congress in 1983 to figure out whether the country’s 8.3 million Vietnam vets were adequately adjusting to civilian life after returning from war. Published in 1992, the landmark National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study helped “put PTSD on the map” as one of the lasting consequences of sending people into battle. It found that about 30 percent of male veterans developed PTSD; by the late 1980s, about 15 percent reported they were still suffering from it.

The new research demonstrates that most of that population has shown little improvement, and many of them have since died from physical ailments linked to the mental condition, like cardiovascular disease. Researchers — who worked to track down the people who participated in the first study in the 1980s — found that about 18 percent of the vets suffering from PTSD had died by the time they reached retirement age, about twice the percentage of deaths among those without the stress disorder.

Researchers hope their data might help inform the Department of Veterans Affairs’ decisions about veterans’ mental health treatment, which remains one of the top concerns for service members returning home from the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent survey of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, more than 60 percent of respondents said they’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries since returning home. Over the past 13 years, the number of veterans seeking claims for PTSD treatment has risen from 133,745 to more than 656,000.

“These are the costs of war, over a lifetime,” Dr. Schlenger told the New York Times. “It’s good to have solid empirical data to help us understand how to manage them.”