As if Donald Trump questioning whether John McCain was a Vietnam War hero wasn’t enough of a cruel reminder of the divisions and divisiveness of that misbegotten war, there was more bad news in the latest issue of JAMA Psychiatry published last week. In an article entitled “Course of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder 40 Years After the Vietnam War: Findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study,” the authors pointed out that: “Approximately 271,000 Vietnam theater veterans have current full PTSD plus sub-threshold war-zone PTSD, one-third of whom have current major depressive disorder, 40 or more years after the war.” (Emphasis mine).
“These findings underscore the need for mental health services for many decades for veterans with PTSD symptoms,” the authors conclude, an ominous prediction for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Think about it. Half a century since the first U. S. Marines landed in Da Nang (March 1965) and more than 40 years since the last American soldiers left the battlefields of Vietnam (March 1973), nearly 300,0000 Vietnam veterans are still suffering.
Study leader Charles Marmar of NYU’s medical school, told NPR that too many Vietnam vets “still get flashbacks, they’re irritable, depressed, they can’t sleep well.”
“Many are quite alienated from family and friends, and have trouble either in the workplace or in their family environments,” added Marmar.
I’d argue that it’s not too late to finally bring these veterans home – and to help them heal. What my co-author Craig Werner and I discovered from a decade of interviews with hundreds of Vietnam vets is that music is one way to do this. Our book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (to be published this fall by University of Massachusetts Press) shows how music helped Vietnam soldiers/veterans to connect to each other and to the World back home and to cope with the complexities of the war they had been sent to fight.
While it wasn’t our intention to write a theoretical or academic book, our understanding of the stories the vets shared was influenced by ongoing research into the relationships among music, memory, and trauma. A cottage industry of recent studies, sparked by Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, document how, if the circumstances are right, music can help heal psychological wounds. In fact, a good number of recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan afflicted with PTSD are using music as a form of therapy.
Is it too late for Vietnam veterans? We think not, and We Gotta Get Out of This Place is proof. Many of the men and women we interviewed had never talked about their Vietnam war experience, even with their spouses and family members. But they could talk about a song – “Dock of the Bay,” These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” “Purple Haze,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “My Girl,” “Fortunate Son” and scores of others – and in that remembering, begin to heal from the war’s wounds.
JAMA Psychiatry link:
Doug Bradley, a Vietnam veteran from Madison, Wisconsin, is co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack to the Vietnam War, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press, November 2015. He’s also the author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle.