A couple of weeks ago, The Daily Show did a piece about Vietnam vets getting denied benefits from the Veteran’s Administration (VA). As usual, The Daily Show piece was irreverent and fun, but like so many of the show’s pieces, it, unfortunately, contained many truthful elements.
It is true that Vietnam veterans with combat PTSD wrongly get denied benefits and it is a travesty. (See The Daily Show clip, below.)
Vietnam Vets and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The name of the condition we now call posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) did not exist at the end of the Vietnam War. It was formally described and named some years later, in 1980. The definition and naming of PTSD was based on the experience of Vietnam veterans and the desire to get them appropriate mental health treatment. And, ironically, even though the condition was based on their experiences, combat PTSD-induced actions often resulted in a less than honorable discharge from the military.
Evaluating Vietnam Vets Reveals Unfair Discharges and Treatment
I have evaluated many veterans in this situation. These vets showed signs of anger, irritability and agitation as part of their combat PTSD. These veterans, upon return from the combat theatre, sometimes became angry at orders given by someone who they perceived as “green” (recently promoted) and, as a result, they mouthed off or became physically assaultive. This has resulted in a less than honorable discharge for many after being diagnosed with a “personality or character disorder.”
The diagnosis of a personality disorder was incorrect and implied the soldier was psychologically impaired even before military service, in spite of the fact that many had performed admirably prior to their traumatic combat-related experiences.
This type of discharge has ensured that these Vietnam veterans were denied the benefits they would have otherwise received.
Remember, there was no diagnosis of PTSD available at the time to explain the symptoms and behavior shown by the soldier, but the fact that they functioned well in the Army prior to the traumatic experience, and then radically changed after, was not considered in the discharge process. Substance abuse, which is very common in soldiers suffering from combat PTSD, also factored into some discharges.
The Country Turned on the Vietnam Veterans with PTSD
At the time, the country had “turned” not only on the war, but tragically, on the soldiers that had fought it so that when they returned stateside they were often maligned and mistreated. I saw this personally. While I did not serve in Vietnam, during the Vietnam era I was in uniform in San Francisco and was spit upon, called a coward and baby killer, and had eggs thrown at me. Imagine the impact of serving in combat and then coming home to that type of reception.
Even the VA was seen as being negative towards Vietnam veterans – “we treat sick people here . . . you are just a pot smoking angry person . . . we don’t want the likes of you here.”
And even though the VA treatment facilities have drastically changed their stance on veterans with combat PTSD since then, many Vietnam era veterans have sworn they would never go there again after such a negative initial experience.
Vets with Less than Honorable Discharges Denied Access to PTSD Services
But the biggest problem for those with a less than honorable discharge was that they were not eligible to receive disability benefits, even after 1980 when PTSD had been recognized as a legitimate condition. Even when things changed for the veterans, the paperwork required to “prove” they had been in battle was often so cumbersome to obtain that many vets just gave up. (That requirement has now changed.)
The Good News for Vietnam Vets with PTSD
The good news is that now there is a process available within the VA to get less than honorable discharges upgraded (where appropriate).
A Thanks to The Daily Show
I credit The Daily Show for their portrayal of this important subject and I can only hope that veterans affected by a less than honorable discharge, especially those vets with combat PTSD, see the show and begin the process that can enable them to receive the benefits they deserve.