to thirty years ago, during the Vietnam war, certain
cultural roles and responsibilities were traditionally
male: being the breadwinner--strong and enduring--and,
of course, going to war. However, we Americans
have witnessed the erosion of traditional male-dominant
roles due largely to the women's movement. Lacking
the physical strength of men, women have used
the justice system, their intelligence, and their
authentic attributes to gain deserved liberation
from actual and presumed male domination. Women
have successfully challenged men in most professions.
Today, hardly any endeavor is a purely male one.
But, during the Vietnam war, fighting was the
domain of men, as it had been throughout the ages.
As such, this manuscript pertains to men, specifically
to Vietnam combat veterans and problems they face
Driven into a war they did not
want, then prevented from fighting it with the
military aggressiveness necessary to win, they
lost confidence and respect. In many cases, upon
their return from the war, Vietnam veterans were
shunned by the civilian community and labeled
"warmongers" and "baby killers."
Many Vietnam veterans were forced to conceal their
involvement in the war, so as not to be ridiculed
but, in doing this, they lost any available cultural
support so essential for adjustment for re-entry
into civilian life. In moments of solitude and
reflection, they could find no purpose for their
involvement in the war. Many were in anguish because,
without a purpose, how could they have killed
fellow human beings just because they were labeled
"the enemy?" They could not, so they
became burdened with guilt.
As their fellow Americans protested
the war and its cruelty, Vietnam veterans became
more and more burdened with guilt. Often, this
guilt grew into a feeling of utter worthlessness;
they felt despicable as human beings.
I have researched the dilemma
of the Vietnam veteran both as a human behavioral
scientist and as a Vietnam combat veteran who
has had a long, painful, first-hand experience
of PTSD and the havoc it can bring to bear on
one's life. I have witnessed the benefits of various
pharmacologicals bring in relieving psychological
pain, I have seen the value of systematic desensitization
offered by behavior and cognitive-behavior therapies,
I respect the importance of personal responsibility
and choice offered by existential psychology,
and I recognize the value of humanistic approaches.
Yet one approach, I believe unnoticed, is to teach
veterans to view their Vietnam experience in terms
of an incomplete male "rite of passage"
or an initiation rite. This approach can provide
much needed meaning from participation in the
war (Paulson, 1992, 1994).
The manner in which I use the
term initiation rite" is not like a ritualistic
rite as seen in the Old Roman Empire movies. Rather,
it serves as a transition vehicle, helping one
leave the present way or stage in life and enter
into a new way or stage. These rites serves as
bridges between the new and the old.
In ancient times, formal initiation
rituals were used quite successfully as entry
vehicles to new life stages. The initiatory rites
were usually interwoven with a symbolic "mythological
story." The story clearly explained to the
initiate where he was (identity), where he was
going (direction), and how he would get here in
life (purpose). In short, it provided meaning.
In western contemporary society,
we are lacking in processes that aid one in finding
meaning in various life transitions provided by
mythical, initiatory rites. While puberty, high
school and/or college graduation, marriage and
retirement are certainly rites of passage carrying
some implicit psychological meaning, they are,
for the most part, superficial social conventions.
Moreover, social perceptions of men and women
as unisexual beings may have actually weakened
male development by suppressing aggressive assertion,"
as well as negative dominator aggression. To truly
come into their own, men must be able to move
beyond solely negative perceptions of aggression.
Hence, males need to re-own their masculinity,
their fierceness. Males need to know that their
feelings of aggression are instinctive and natural.
There is nothing wrong with them. Problems of
aggression arise from acting them out inappropriately.
War often brings the need to protect through aggression
to the fore. In Vietnam, I think this was the
case. Unfortunately, the Vietnam veteran was not
able to fight with his full potential. He had
to fight with his hands politically tied. Then
when he came back to America, he was degraded
as a baby-killer, a warmonger and a savage. I
liken the Vietnam veteran's psychological plight
to that of a man who watched his children killed
and his wife raped, but was unable to protect
them. He would be tormented not only by the injustice
done, but by his own inability to act on his family's
With all the technological advancements
in warfare, it is still the common infantryman
or "grunt" who fights the built of the
war. It is the infantryman who must experience
the physical, emotional and mental anguish of
war; being sick, being wounded, facing the tension
and anxiety of impending death, and dealing with
the deaths of others on a daily basis. For the
Vietnam infantryman, like his predecessors, life
was never again the same after he experienced
combat. No longer could he dismiss death as an
event far into the future. Even if he survived
the war, he was aware that death is but an instant
away. No matter where he was or is, no matter
what job or position he may hold, no matter who
he marries, no matter how financially secure he
is, he will always know, deep in his heart, that
life on this earth holds no permanence for him.
For the most part, his world view
is contrary to the world view of his peers who
did not experience combat. For the noncombatant,
death is deniable; for the combat veteran, it
is an overshadowing truth. While the noncombatant's
world view is generally very predictable--graduation
from high school, entering college, marrying,
raising a family, working, and ultimately enjoying
life in retirement --the combatant's world view
tends to be one of living in an unpredictable
world which is undergoing constant, threatening
change. He has seen so much death, so much suffering,
and has been forced to live so closely with insecurity
that he can no longer feel secure The veteran's
life, mirroring his Vietnam experience, has no
meaning, no purpose, and no direction.
In many cases, meaning and purpose
can be extracted from the Vietnam experience when
viewed as an initiation rite process (Paulson,
1992). Rites of initiation are three stage processes
where the initiate/warrior is 1) called to enter
the adventure, 2) initiated via a number of adventures,
and 3) upon completing these adventures, returned
to his normal life, integrating his new initiatory
experiences into his life where he can employ
them to help himself and others. However, the
problem with the modern Vietnam combat hero is
that the "knowledge" he gained from
the war was not recognized or respected by either
his culture or himself.
When positive meaning is absent,
an intense feeling of despair is a recurring
situation experienced by many Vietnam veterans
with whom I have worked. They are convinced
there was and is nothing useful to be derived
from their war experiences, and like most Americans,
they feel that the United States did not obtain
any type of victory but, rather, killed, maimed
and psychologically defeated many of its young
men. Moreover, the lack of psychological support
from their country while serving in Vietnam
was painful and traumatic, but being attacked,
put down and protested against by their peers
for involvement in Vietnam was excruciating
(Lifton, 1973; Paulson, 1994; Shay, 1994).
One army veteran, Joe, clearly
illustrates this situation. Joe had grown up
on a farm in Kentucky and was a peaceful, laid-back
farm boy. After high school graduation, he worked
on his father's farm and was preparing to marry
his high school sweetheart. But Joe was also
a poor boy, unable to get a draft deferment.
Thus, shortly after graduation, he was served
a draft notice. Joe had absolutely no desire
to go to Vietnam but, because he felt a moral
responsibility to defend his nation from attack,
he joined the U.S. Army. He was sent to Vietnam
just in time for Christmas to fight the war.
He saw comrade after comrade killed. One moment,
they would be laughing and joking with him with
a twinkle in their eyes about what they would
do when they got out of Vietnam. The next moment,
they would be dead, lying in the grass or mud
with a poncho loosely covering them until they
were picked up by a helicopter and taken to
"Graves Registration." His friends
were now cold and grey, their vacant eyes staring
Joe ultimately survived Vietnam
and was exuberant about returning home to marry
his sweetheart whom he had left behind. Upon his
return, however, things were not the same. The
sweet smell of the summer's clover no longer made
him glad to be alive. His sweetheart no longer
brought him joy and happiness. He was now burdened
with unfinished business. Nearly every night,
the images of his dead buddies visited him in
his dreams. He saw their gray, cold faces with
empty, staring eyes. Life for Joe was now pain.
His sweetheart turned away from him, marrying
someone she had been seeing while he was in Vietnam.
His parents kicked him off the farm because of
his drinking problem. He tried college in Louisville,
but was stereotyped by many as a warmonger and
a baby-killer. Within four months of beginning
college, he dropped out, and began a clouded,
ten-year ordeal of drifting from town to town,
bar to bar, and woman to woman, running from himself.
This story, while unique to Joe,
is hauntingly similar to the life patterns of
many other Vietnam veterans. But, while their
past cannot be altered, they can make sense out
of their Vietnam experience. They can turn their
lives around (Shay, 1994). The approach will be
to re-frame their perceptions of meaninglessness
and purposelessness of the war and their lives
and find positive meaning for the war experience,
as well as their lives in the here and now.
Meaning operates not only in our
conscious awareness, but outside as well. The
meaning carried outside our personal awareness
has a powerful effect on how we feel, think and
act. The way in which we act or live may be thought
of as our "personal mythology." In this
sense, myths are not just stories but constellations
of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, organized
around a central core or theme; these constellations
can help or hinder us in comprehending our lives
in meaningful ways and in feeling connected with
the universe (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988).
Many mythological motifs portray
the warrior hero as having to proceed through
the initiation experience alone (Campbell, 1988).
This was also so for the Vietnam combat veteran
who had to deal with his experience alone. He
left his community alone. He endured combat training
alone. He contended with pre-combat anxiety alone.
Alone, he dealt with his thoughts of being killed
in battle. Re proved his worth to his combat unit
alone. No one cheered him upon his return; he
was again alone. Being alone, then, is something
with which a combat veteran can identify. Since
our society will probably never welcome him home
or provide meaning for his involvement in the
war, he must strive to gain a personal meaning
from the war, a meaning unique to each warrior
(Paulson, 1992, 1994).
Let us look at rites of passage
in greater detail (Figure 1). Notice that it consists
of three, invariant stages: 1) call to adventure,
2) initiation, and 3) return.
Call to Adventure
The call signifies that "destiny"
has summoned the individual to move from his/her
present position in life to one which will enhance
his sphere of being (Metzner, 1988). During this
phase, the initiate accepts the call and, therefore,
the rite of passage which will take him, if successfully
traversed, into a larger life arena (Campbell,
1949). Campbell (1949) subdivided the "call
to adventure" into two categories: "acceptance"
and "past the threshold."
During the course of life, one
often comes to a crossroad where he must consciously
choose the next step in his life (Metzner, 1988).
It may concern a new career, a new lover, a new
way of being, an opportunity to grow, or dealing
with personal tragedy. Often, choice is precipitated
by a life occurrence which makes the person dissatisfied
with himself, with an interpersonal relationship,
or with his life1s work (Walsh, 1990). This pain
often serves as a catalyst which causes one to
search for healing or comfort -- to move past
oneís current sphere of life (Feinstein &
Past the Threshold
Once the call has been accepted,
one cannot return to one's former way of being.
One must now continue the rite of passage (Campbell,
1949). This portion, "past the threshold,"
has been described as a period of anxiety and
apprehension because of the many unknowns in the
future (Campbell, 1972). However, it also has
been associated with excitement and a sense of
adventure concerning what lies ahead (Campbell,
1949; Paulson, 1992; Walsh, 1990). Closely associated
with this period are the recurrent symbols of
the doorway, threshold, gate, entrance, or passageway
(Campbell, 1949; Metzner, 1988; Walsh, 1990).
Campbell (1949) described this substage as a narrow
and dangerous passage through which there is no
return. This substage is not always distinct and
clear-cut (Metzner, 1988). A number of myths describe
it as stepping into a bank of fog, or a cloudy,
indistinct region where the hero is confused and
disoriented. Bridges (1980) describes this substage
as a "neutral zone." One phase of the
hero's life has ended (he has accepted the call),
but the next phase is unclear (he has not yet
Once the hero has accepted the
call to adventure, and has crossed the threshold,
the initiation proper begins. Cross-culturally,
this stage is a time when the hero is faced with
tests, obstacles, challenges, and battles which
must be endured to prove his worthiness. If the
obstacles are successfully overcome, the hero
attains the sought-after treasure or reward for
the adventure. The initiation stage can also be
subdivided into two substages (Campbell, 1949;
Goodrich, 1962; Metzner, 1988; Walsh, 1990): the
"descent into the depths" and the "journey."
Descent into the Depth
In mythological motifs, the beginning
of the initiation, the descent into the depths,
is often depicted as the "night-sea voyage,"
"the journey through hell," or the "dark
night of the soul" (Campbell, 1949, 1988).
In certain shamanistic and Hellenistic myths,
the hero is depicted as undertaking a lower world,
or underworld, journey (Walsh, 1990). This subphase
is characterized as constricting, arduous, painful
and often portrayed as a hell or a land of the
dead (Campbell, 1949; Metzner, 1988). Religious
heroes, including Jesus and Muhammad, are clearly
depicted as traversing a hell in their initiatory
rites (Campbell, 1949). This is also witnessed
in the prototypical Christian initiation of the
descent into and pilgrimage through hell portrayed
in Dante's Divine Comedy.
Other mythical motifs represent
this subphase as descending into the depths of
the ocean (Campbell, 1949). Gilgamesh, for example,
had to descend to the bottom of the sea to find
the herb of immortality. Theseus descended into
the sea to collect a crown of gold, which he used
to illuminate his travels through a labyrinth
A most poignant expression of
this initiation phase is the journey through the
wilderness (Metzner, 1988). Often, the hero is
depicted as having lost his way, being disheartened,
and roaming aimlessly. While these stories are
frightening, they hold the potential for successfully
completing the initiation (Metzner, 1988). Once
the "descent into the depths" has been
successfully met, as depicted by the hero finding
a magical item--an amulet, a sword, a potion (i.e.,
the experience)--which enables him to complete
The rest of the initiation process
is presented as a journey: a voyage up a holy
mountain, a quest through a forest, through a
wilderness, through a castle, or through a labyrinth
(Campbell, 1949; Metzner, 1988). The journey helps
him gain a new sense of life direction. No longer
is he in transition, but is transformed into a
new level of being (Campbell, 1949; Metzner, 1988).
Once the hero has completed the
initiation, the return portion of the passage
begins (Campbell, 1949). The return phase is one
of understanding, integration and contribution.
That is, the hero brings back his or her newly-acquired
initiatory wisdom to those who did not experience
it (Campbell, 1949). The hero has collected the
treasure and can now assimilate it and share it
with others. Rites of passage depict a cyclical
movement of "going out" and "returning"
(Metzner, 1988). This movement almost certainly
can be identified as a universal human experience.
It is common for' people to experience "going
out," or extending themselves, learning from
this extension, and returning to their routine
life patterns with new knowledge integrated into
The return phase did not occur
for most Vietnam veterans. Instead, they were
shunned by the very society which sent them to
Vietnam, making it even more difficult for their
integration and return.
for Reframing Combat as a Rite of Passage
By employing the initiatory model
just presented, framed in a combat perspective,
this structure can help those who have experienced
combat to integrate that experience in their psyches
in a positive manner. For those who have not experienced
combat, it can provide them a "lighted way"
to explain what they will experience and how they
The Call to
Every combat veteran had his own
reasons for leaving the security of civilian life
and going into the military. He was "called"
to the combat adventure. It may be an internal
calling to "prove himself a man," to
put his life on the line for something he believes
in, or the chance to have an exciting life adventure,
instead of working at an unfulfilling job or educational
experience. For me, I was deeply infatuated with
a girl who really did not care about me. I was
bored with high school and could see no reason
for going on to college. I was unskilled in any
kind of trade, such as carpentry or auto mechanics.
I felt a sense of "power" telling people
I was thinking of joining the Marine Corps. After
I saw the John Wayne movie, The Green Berets,
I was intrigued by the adventure. I saw a way
to escape my boredom and, at the same time, defy
my elders. I could finally show my parents and
my teachers that I was tough and did not need
One of my Marine Corps acquaintances,
Art, had a different story. He had been repeatedly
in and out of trouble with the local police and,
finally, with the federal government. He and a
friend had spray-painted a federal hydroelectric
dam with 25 obscene words. Since Art had repeatedly
been in trouble with the law, the judge gave him
a choice: join the military or go to jail. He
chose the military.
This period begins as soon
as he experiences combat. Many of his comrades
are killed during this period. But, for those
who survive, a new psychological position occurs,
that of total despair. He now feels that, no matter
what he does, his efforts will not alter the low
statistical probability of his survival. It is
during this period that he is severely tested
through combat, witnessing friend after friend
brutally killed, as well as killing enemy soldiers
In my first two weeks of combat,
our radio man was shot through the head just in
front of me, while we were on patrol. He had moved
into the path of a sniper's bullet destined for
me. He was talking to another unit and, then,
it was over. He was gone in an instant. He was
then "tagged and bagged;" that is, he
was identified by his unit and put into a body
bag to be sent home.
I saw 17 of my companions who
were coming in on a helicopter for a ground assault
killed by a direct hit of a 121 mm rocket--all
killed. They were gone in an instant. At the end
of those two weeks, I watched six seasoned veterans
destroyed by an incoming mortar round as they
ate their C-rations. They, too, were gone in an
instant. From my perspective, combat was far too
ruthless, random and absolute for me to do anything
to prevent my death.
But like the hero in mythology,
after suffering, enduring, and surrendering to
apparent utter failure, the combat initiate is
often assisted by "supernatural forces."
This assistance sometimes comes in the form of
intuition. After a time, he actually begins to
feel that he is being warned about dangerous situations
before they occur.
For example, during the 1969 TET
offensive, I was at the An Hoa Marine outpost
with my unit, awaiting helicopter transportation
to a very hot, bloody battle taking place in an
area known as Elephant Valley. Elephant Valley
was a treacherous place; we dreaded going there.
I was very preoccupied with what kind of shit
(combat) was going on there but, due to the heavy
monsoon rains, we could not leave that night.
A few hours later, I had a very strong feeling
of impending danger while lying in my tent. I
could not sleep, my heart raced, my anxiety escalated,
and a voice inside me said, "Leave the tent
now!" I gathered my flack jacket, helmet,
ammunition and a poncho and walked to the perimeter
trenches where I tried to sleep. About an hour
later, the outpost was attacked and overrun by
North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. During the
attack, the outpost was pounded with hundreds
of high explosive rockets and mortar rounds. The
ground shook from the impact explosions of these
rounds and, when the ammunition dump was hit,
it erupted in a series of huge, violent fire explosions.
We thought we would never survive the night as
we repelled wave after wave of NVA attackers.
But, finally, by morning, they retreated.
Being tired and sore from the
battle, I limped back to my tent to get some sleep.
When I got there, I was shocked to find a huge
hole in the tent, directly in line with where
my head usually rested on my cot. A boulder, approximately
three feet across lay on top of what was left
of my cot. The boulder would have killed me had
I stayed in the tent.
In mythological motifs, the hero
often experiences an encounter with a father figure.
The father image is important, for it is the father
who guides the hero as he experiences the trying
times of the initiation. The father image and
guidance are also present for combat initiates.
After having proven himself worthy (he is still
alive after a number of battles), he is "mentored"
by a more experienced combat veteran "father."
This person acts as his guide, and takes an active
role in mentoring him in the ways of combat.
A leathery old Marine took an
interest in me and taught me how to survive. He
taught me the ways of combat. I learned to distinguish
sound differences between incoming and outgoing
mortars and rockets, and I mastered the art of
~ the point" without being killed or getting
the entire squad killed.
Finally, in many mythological
motifs, the hero meets the goddess. This meeting
is usually presented in mythological motifs only
after the hero has endured many trials and proven
himself worthy. An example of the goddess' function
was to show the hero the ways of bliss and comfort,
in spite of the hardships encountered during this
initiation. For me, once I came to terms with
my combat situation and accepted it, I was free
to just "be." Gone were most of the
fears of being killed, for now I accepted that
if it was to be, it would be. I no longer felt
responsible for me survival. If I were killed,
that was simply the way things were intended to
be. My number would simply be up.
After the mythological hero successfully
completes his initiation, he returns to the ordinary
world to share his boon with the "common"
people. Unlike the mythological hero, however,
the contemporary initiate's return is often not
his actual physical return from combat. When he
returns, he has one more obstacle to contend with
in the initiation process; his physical return
from combat presents him with yet another trial.
The actual return for the combat veteran comes
later, if it ever comes.
This is a critical point. Many
people, combat veterans included, think that the
physical return is equivalent to the heroís "return"
in mythology. Many veterans think that, once they
return from combat, their problems will be over
but, unfortunately, they often find this is not
so. Although they do not realize it, their initiation
is not yet complete. They have another trial to
face. It is to understand and integrate the "adventure"
in which they have participated into their lives.
Many veterans remain in that netherland, failing
to accomplish the return.
There comes a time when the combat
veteran can no longer escape from. the existential
dilemma of the pseudo-return, the need for the
actual completion of the initiation and return
arises. For many, the actual return never occurs.
However, for a minority, it usually takes place
by confrontation of the combat adventure in psychotherapy.
The return is, in many ways, more
traumatic and painful than actual combat. The
veteran has to meet, experience and accept his
shadow, or the dark side of his life, which means
suffering and acknowledging his humanness. As
he integrates his fragmented psyche and faces
his existential position, he grows.. As he deals
with this issue, he begins to realize that he
is an integral part of a larger process, unfolding
in a universe which has meaning beyond his physical
life. He sees this meaning in his inner life,
in his culture and in his external life.
That realization is his boon,
the wisdom that he brings back from war. He realizes
that "he is not alone in a meaningless universe
but is an integral part of it."
The Stuck Veteran
Many Vietnam veterans remain in
an uncompleted initiation state; they are "stuck."
There are a number of issues which keep them stuck:
1) difficulties in readjusting
to civilian life;
2) differences between Vietnam
veterans and veterans of other wars;
3) relationship of the Vietnam
veteran 5 pre-combat dispositional factors
to his adjustment problems after the war;
4) the combat ordeal producing
post-war adjustment problems;
5) current psychological strategies
for treating disturbed Vietnam veterans; and
6) the social and political
alienation of Vietnam veterans.
A majority of Vietnam combat veterans
have faced problems adjusting to civilian life,
the first category mentioned. Upon their return
to the United States, many veterans felt as though
they were aliens on a strange planet. They were
misfits, no longer in the military, but no longer
able to "fit in" with their friends
or to function smoothly in society. Even today,
they are no more integrated into civilian life
than they were twenty-five years ago. Many have
had a string of unsuccessful marital relationships;
many cannot get or hold meaningful jobs, while
others drift from city to city, year after year
trying to "get their heads on straight."
Quite a few have tried to numb their pain by excessive
use of alcohol and/or drugs. In the final analysis,
they are stuck in a hellish limbo. They are filled
with emotional pain and suffering accompanied
by feelings of anguish, total despair, rejection,
self-hate, and an almost unbearable guilt for
their involvement in Vietnam.
The second category of stress
the Vietnam veteran experiences is based in the
fundamental difference between him and veterans
of other wars. The Vietnam veteran did not win
the war and has been reminded of this repeatedly
by both World War II and Korean veterans, as well
as Desert Storm veterans. The shame Vietnam veterans
experience over this loss has caused them to repress
many aspects of the war; this has prevented them
from being able to work through it psychologically.
For Pete, a former Army infantry
officer, his life sums this up well. Pete's father
was a highly decorated B-17 bomber pilot during
World War II. Two of his brothers were killed
in action, one in Iwo Jima and the other in France.
Pete had to follow in those footsteps in Vietnam.
When he came back, however, he just could not
face his father. Pete felt as though he had let
both his father and his country down by losing
the war. When Pete and his father went to the
local VFW post for a couple of drinks, not a word
was spoken about Vietnam. Yet Pete could see the
frustration in his fatherís eyes. Pete thought
all his efforts had been for naught. As Pete put
it, "How could I face anyone? I participated
in a war we lost."
How could the United States have
won the Vietnam war? The military's hands were
tied. Many United States politicians expected
Hanoi's submission. In reality, we had to fight
a tough, determined, and resistant opponent--the
North Vietnamese soldier. We as a country just
could not make a commitment to fight a war with
little apparent purpose. We had a very powerful
military, but we had no solid political and social
support to back it. For political reasons, we
could not just leave Vietnam. So infantrymen were
essentially offered as a sacrifice, to buy a just
retreat. This situation was not satisfactory to
previous veterans. They could not understand how
Vietnam was different from World War II.
The third category concerns psychological
factors common to "stuck" veterans which
significantly contributes to stress and adjustment.
While not all Vietnam veterans were psychologically
predisposed to adjustment difficulties, a number
of those who are "stuck," who failed
to make the return, are. Many volunteers were
"running from themselves" by joining
the military. They felt that going to Vietnam
would somehow "straighten" them out.
A very common perception among Marine Corps volunteers
was that the Marine Corps could take you, an inadequate
"boy," and mal(e you a "man."
In fact, the recruitment slogan used was "The
Marine Corps builds men." Since these men
already felt inadequate and lacked self-confidence
and self-direction, they were predisposed to psychological
adjustment disorders. The burdens of the war were
hard for them to bear; the social approval they
had striven for turned out to be social rejection.
Roger, an Army helicopter gunner,
stated that he joined the Army because it would
make him a man. People would respect him then.
He worked hard in boot camp, doing well in marksmanship,
physical endurance, and combat sl4lls. In Vietnam,
he worked hard at his mission: killing Vietnamese.
Yet, upon his return to the United States, he
found that instead of more respect from his peers,
he now had less. Deeply troubled, he ultimately
went into psychotherapy, only to discover that
his problems were not solely Vietnam-caused. He
found that he felt inadequate as a person many
years before going into the military. For Roger,
the military service was a way for him to compensate
for feeling "weak" - an objective like
that of Teddy Roosevelt, who joined the "Rough
Riders" to compensate for his poor health
and poor eyesight.
I think most who volunteered for
the military share Roger's situation. We, too,
felt a sense of inadequacy in ourselves. We needed
a boost to our egos that we felt the military
would provide. However, the military did not compensate
for our feelings of inadequacy. When one needs
to prove to himself that he is brave, strong and
adequate, he will often put himself through a
series of self-imposed tests and trials. No matter
what the outcome, adequacy is never proven. Proof
comes only through learning to accept oneself
for what one is.
The fourth category of adjustment
problems is rooted in the actual, traumatic combat
experiences of the veterans. These experiences
caused post-war adjustment problems, to some degree,
in every combat veteran who served in Vietnam.
True, many of the World War II veterans had this
social readjustment problem when they returned
home from the war, but not nearly to the degree
we find it in the Vietnam veteran. The World War
II veteran1s mission was clear; he also had tremendous
support from his country. The Vietnam veteran
had neither of these. More likely, he was belittled
and made to feel like a criminal. He was alienated
from a society that sent him to fight in a war
it supported only halfheartedly. In my view, the
noncommitted position of the United States has
hurt more Vietnam veterans than all the physical
and emotional wounds received in combat, at least
tenfold. As the veteran perceived it, it was ultimate
betrayal by his country.
Tom was an Army officer with the
101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. After being
involved in college ROTC for four years and graduating
in 1969, he was commissioned and sent to Vietnam.
He felt pride in the military and strove to perform
the best that he could in combat. Tom was wounded
by a mortar round which severed his spinal cord,
and he was paralyzed from the waist down. After
he was discharged from the service, he found that
he could not get a job in his field, finance,
mainly due to his disability. He was told confidentially
that customers coming into a bank for a loan did
not want to deal with disabled people, especially
one who was a Vietnam veteran. Tom was devastated.
He had gone to Vietnam with the perception of
protecting his society. Now he was permanently
disabled - a consequence of his fighting for a
society that now turned its back on him because
his disability might remind them of the war. Tom
gave up twenty years ago, lives solely on a government
disability pension, and passes his days drinking.
The fifth category, that of the
treatment strategies used for Vietnam veterans,
has been a tremendous problem. The major reasons
for this problem are: a) the wrong method of psychotherapeutic
treatment and b) inadequate training of the counselor
or therapist for the needs of the combat veteran.
By learning to see reality from
the veteran's perspective, the healthcare professional
can truly begin to help the veteran. It is critical
to remember that each combat veteran is a unique
individual with unique life experiences, and he
must be treated as a unique person with unique
problems. Otherwise, it is doubtful that the therapist
will form a "therapeutic bridge" to
work with the veteran. Once an authentic connection
with the combat veteranís unique, existential
problems has begun, specific treatment modalities
can be used as they are appropriate. While each
healthcare professional has his/her own approach,
he must consciously extend that approach to ameliorate
the patient's existential situation. Each patient
requires a unique, psychotherapeutic strategy--based
on his needs, not the therapist's.
The sixth category of adjustment
disorder stems from the general, political alienation
of the veteran. By alienation, I mean to say that
the veteran feels rejected and unsupported by
the society he sought to support, denounced by
both social and political systems in the United
States. While this atmosphere was not meant to
alienate Vietnam veterans, it did. Veterans went
to Vietnam with at least the pseudo-support of
their society, but they returned to ridicule and
These six categories are the basis
for the "limbo" state in which many
Vietnam veterans find themselves. I seriously
doubt if one can categorize a veteran's dilemma
into just one of the specific categories. Rather,
most post-war problems are combinations and permutations
of all six categories, varying with the individual.
and his life situation.
In conclusion, the Vietnam war
and its effects on combat survivors has been devastating.
However, this is their "thrown condition."
It is important, then, not to focus on the "whys"
of Vietnam but on the "hows" of growing
and the process of assimilating the experience
into the veteran's psyche. While the veteran has
looked for the answer to his plight in healthcare
professions, religions, work, philosophies, cultural
practices and even in society, it will not be
found there. Instead, it will be found in himself,
as he moves toward being a whole person, feeling
good about himself through self-acceptance, finding
self-direction, and being responsible for his
life and then toward expressing it in the wide
community of his cultural life, while striving
to contribute to his society.
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©1997 by The American
Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.