A Clinical Perspective on Treatment of Vietnam Veterans

November 9, 2017

Image: National Park Service


The Vietnam War, a documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick details the “epic story of one of the most controversial events in American history.” In a Washington Post podcast, Ken Burns stated:  “I do not think that the Vietnam War is over…all wars are fought twice; on the battlefield and in our memory…we’re still fighting the Vietnam War and these ghosts of the war are still haunting us.”

In War Trauma: Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam to Iraq, Raymond Monsour Scurfield writes that when the war is morally controversial and politically divisive it can make the returning Veteran’s postwar readjustment extremely problematic. However, despite the angst that American society has undergone post-Vietnam, most Vietnam Veterans have successfully transitioned back to civilian life.

Operation Home and Healing

At Council for Relationships, our clinicians help military Veterans who have had a difficult time adjusting back to the civilian world. CFR’s Operation Home and Healing program (OHH) provides counseling and services for active service members, Veterans, and their families. Specially-trained therapists work with the Veterans and their loved ones to help heal invisible wounds. Council’s therapists aim to help Veterans and their families heal and become better partners, parents, and family members.

What have we learned from treating Vietnam Veterans? What has changed since Vietnam that impacts today’s returning Veterans? I consulted two of our past directors of OHH, both of whom have worked with Veterans for decades, for comment.

1. Vietnam Veterans experienced shock in a new environment

One pattern they observed was the changes resulting from the switch from a draft-based military to one of volunteers. The Vietnam Veterans they saw as clients were very young when introduced to combat and largely from urban areas. The jungle climate they experienced in Vietnam was vastly different from anything they had known before. Vietnam draftees also weren’t as prepared as the armed services military personnel of the post 9-11 wars.

2. Vietnam Veterans faced isolation as draftees

Veteran clients commented that as draftees, they did not go to war with anyone they knew prior to deployment. When they came back to the US, they felt isolated, lonely and unable to share their experiences with family members for fear of being judged.

Many exhibited a tendency towards secretiveness, even hiding the photos they took of their combat experiences from family members. One clinician thought that the photos may have served to anchor the memories. Clients would show the photos to this clinician to test if he could tolerate their pain before sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings with him.

3. Vietnam Veterans were home sooner after discharge

A third pattern that our clinicians noted was that the Vietnam Veterans often came home quickly after discharge. Within 24 hours they could be transitioned back into civilian life. One Navy Seal told his therapist that he went from a gun ship in the Mekong Delta to back home in California within 24 hours. In fact, eight hours or so after leaving his unit in Vietnam, he was on an airplane full of fellow war fighters, with the flight attendant offering him a beer. This jarring transition impeded a successful reintegration. In contrast, World War II military personnel spent several months in Europe before returning to the US. Additionally, the long trip home on a ship served as a buffer and may have helped with the transition back to civilian life.


The Military and Mental Health Today

Both of my therapist consultants noted that the military has improved in regards to mental health concerns post-Vietnam. The transition from combat zone to home is normally a slower process. Increased attention to post-deployment readjustment has brought support for families, identification of PTSD as a recognized diagnosis, and an expanded VA network with a greater focus on behavioral health.

Throughout these changes, CFR has continued to provide counseling for those Veterans and family members who are in need. Our services include therapists trained in military culture and appropriate behavior health treatments, affordable sliding fees, appointments available within 48 hours, and no restrictions or requirements for who can be seen by CFR therapists including family members with or without the veteran.

Our clinicians are committed to providing services to the military and veteran community in the Greater Philadelphia region. This Veterans Day, we want to express our gratitude and appreciation for the military and their families who have made sacrifices to defend the United States on our behalf.

Learn more about Operation Home and Healing by clicking here. If you are interested in therapy services, please get in touch at veterans@councilforrelationships.org