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From Trouble to Troubled

Vietnam Veterans Sue for PTSD

by JERRY LEMBCKE

The lawsuit filed in Federal Court on March 3 seeking class-action status for Vietnam veterans with less-than-honorable discharges raises old questions about the origins of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of great interest are the thin lines separating PTSD’s diagnostic purpose from the roles it has played as a political and cultural concept. In the context of the current lawsuit, a reprise of the situation out of which PTSD arose as a diagnostic category also reveals some ironies.

The five Vietnam veterans named as plaintiffs claim they were wrongfully discharged for disciplinary reasons when their misbehaviors were actually due to the trauma and stress of combat. However, the diagnostic category covering their conditions, PTSD, would not be identified until years after they served, and even then their “bad paper” discharges disqualified them from receiving medical and other veteran’s benefits.

In essence the lawsuit asks that PTSD be recognized as a “wound of war” which would open the way for their discharges to be upgraded and their eligibility for benefits restored. The veterans who are represented by the Yale Law School Legal Services Clinic estimate there are tens of thousands of others in similar circumstances.

The case is interesting because the behavioral and medical issues we see tangled in it are threads that run back to the war in Vietnam. Midway through the war, American news sources began carrying reports of dissent within the military ranks. Some acts of resistance to military authority rose to open rebellion and refusal to carry out orders. In the fall of 1969 some soldiers in Vietnam wore black arm bands in support of the Moratorium Days against the war being held back in the states, while a few entire units even declined orders to go on patrol during those days. Low-level acts of resistance such as working-to-rule, misuse of equipment, and drug and alcohol abuse were common in Vietnam by that time, and while desertion and violence against officers, known as “fragging”, were not, they were frequent enough to raise real concerns about mission readiness.

In 1971 former Marine Colonial Robert Heinl wrote in the Armed Forces Journal that moral and disciplinary problems within the military and Vietnam in particular had brought battle-worthiness to an all-time low. The only way to save the military, it seemed, was to get out of Vietnam.

By 1972 the war was lost, if not quite over. The dissent spawned in Vietnam was spilling over at home into a veteran’s movement supporting the national reluctance for more war, the malaise later known as the “Vietnam Syndrome.”  The anomaly of Veterans opposed to their own war was a troubling challenge to conventional approaches to post-war issues. Out of that discordance came responses by the press establishment, mental health professionals, and the White House that converged to forge a new way of thinking and talking about the problems posed by veterans. That new discourse begun in the early 1970s as the vague psychological term “post-Vietnam Syndrome” culminated in the professional acceptance of PTSD as diagnostic category in 1980.

If not intended as such, the psychologizing of what had been to that point viewed as political had the effect of recasting veteran radicalism as “cathartic,” a form of “acting out”—the trouble coming home from Vietnam as politically empowered veterans would be stigmatized as troubled and treated as an illness.

Some of the veterans potentially in the class covered by the current suit may have been plain old “bad apples” whose misbehavior while in uniform having nothing to do with resisting abusive authority or the higher motives of pacifism. But many more of those individuals are likely connectable with the political and counter-cultural currents that swept the country and the military in the 1960s and 1970s. One need only to see the 2006 documentary film Sir! No Sir! about the in-service anti-war movement to be reminded of that. They were embraced by the activist community and provided legal services by professional volunteers.

It is ironic that the soldier and veteran dissent that helped end a war that many Americans agree today should have never been fought was discredited and historically obscured by the same mental health label that is now sought in their behalf.

The mixed legacy of PTSD aside, there is no gainsaying the right of many of those veterans to the respectability they deserve, the health care they need, and the decency of the lawyers championing their cause.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam and  Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal. His newest book is PTSD: Diagnosis or Identity in Post-empire America? He can be reached at  jlembcke@holycross.edu.