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Our Vietnam Voices: Majority of older Vietnam veterans find post-traumatic growth, study shows

Lynne Bader

Most people have heard of PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health problem that can develop after witnessing a life-threatening event.

Lesser known is PTG. While recording the oral histories of local Vietnam War veterans, a University at Buffalo researcher found that post-traumatic growth can exist at the same time as PTSD. Marian Hetherly explains as part of WNED|WBFO's "Our Vietnam Voices" series.

"If you look around this room here, you'll notice of the guys here have grey hair [laughter]. There should be more of us, but we were denied attention. 'Nothing's wrong with you.' So a lot of guys commit suicide because they couldn't get attention, nor treatment, nor respect. I've seen that and I've been through that."

According to the U.S. Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million U.S. troops that served in Vietnam suffered from PTSD. Their rates of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and divorce were markedly higher among veterans.

Credit WNED-TV
University at Buffalo Researcher Thomas Chacko (right) presents his study findings to veterans.

In the study of local Vietnam War veterans conducted by Thomas Chacko for his master's degree in psychology, he found a PTSD level of 24 (self-report)-30 percent (interview). However, he also found something more positive also was found.

"PTG is a positive change experienced as people struggle with their traumatic experiences," Chacko said to a group of local Vietnam War veterans. "It's like people coming out of a very stressful, traumatic event becoming stronger. You know that old saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' has been, I would say, one of the remarkable findings of this research."

Chacko found this attitude among more than half the 117 veterans from Tonawanda, Salamanca and Rochester, aged 65 and older, who had their boots on the ground in Vietnam. He said the higher the level of PTSD, the more difficult it was to grow stronger from the experience of combat.

"Sometimes when I'm wearing a Chapter 77 shirt, or jacket in the winter, sometimes a person will come up and say, 'Thank you for serving' and all that, but other times I've been approached by people who have to be our age, who says, 'I certainly wouldn't be proud of that.' So that's still there, too, and I really have a hard time understanding why they would care anymore. You know, uh, so I can't process that."

"PTG is not universal. It's desirable, but this is not guaranteed," Chacko said. "Research has found that it is, sort of, difficult when the PTSD is very high - and again, it doesn't mean that they do not suffer, you know. There has been a misconception. Even when you suffer, even when you have the distress, even when you have active symptoms, you still can have growth."

Chacko said those veterans demonstrating PTG had an increased sense of personal strength. They had outgoing personalities, a strong support network of loved ones and friends, sought new opportunities, looked for greater meaning in relationships, held on tighter to spiritual and religious values and, overall, had a greater appreciation for life.

"Something that I’ve noticed or what’s bothered me, I guess, is they still teach a lot about the greatest generation, about the Second World War, but they say very little about us. I mean, I have three grandchildren in high school and I asked if they teach anything about the Vietnam War. Maybe one hour in school. It’s just amazing to me, but they’ll talk a couple days on the Second World War. It doesn’t sit well."

Credit Lynne Bader / WNED-TV
Young parade-goers receive an American flag from Chapter 77 Vietnam veterans.

"It's important that the people see you, the veterans - the Vietnam veterans, in particular - as a repertoire of knowledge, you know," Chacko said. "If you really want to know what it takes to survive difficulties, to endure everything and move on in life, ask Vietnam veterans."

Chacko said these veterans showed that life is not always positive. It can be hostile or challenging, but there are ways to overcome that.

He hopes his findings will be passed along to younger veterans who struggle with transition, as well as schoolchildren who may only know the Vietnam War from a history book.

"That's how we got started, because when veterans, when we came back, other veterans from other wars didn't give a damn about us [yeah, unfortunately]. That's how we ended up starting the Vietnam veterans is because we'll never leave another veteran behind [right]."

Italicized quotes are veterans attending a meeting at the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 77 - with nearly 650 members, recognized as the sixth largest VVA in the nation.

You can hear more about this epic period in American history in the landmark documentary premiere of "The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick" this Sunday at 8 p.m. on WNED-TV.

For more stories of local Vietnam veterans, visit WNED.org to watch the Our Vietnam Voices series. There, you can share your own story and join the conversation using the hashtag #VietnamStoriesPBS.

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