In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
As I reflect on my own experiences as a veteran, I've begun to wonder how veterans were treated in the past, and what the future will look like for veterans.
Understanding the reality of the past can be very difficult. Often texts and accounts of past events become skewed by imperfect recollections, fractured objectivity, or a desire to portray the past "as you like it." My own desire to gain an appreciation of what it was like for veterans throughout U.S. history is often hindered by these imperfections in historical accounts. Furthermore, many tend to look at the veterans of past wars within the context of the present. As a result, some people may look at the trials and tribulations of those earlier veterans and think, "it wasn't as bad as all that."
While looking for objective evidence of what it was like for veterans in the past, I looked at Matthew Brady's Civil War photography. I also came upon a piece of curious ephemera: a book called Veterans of the War, Whom All Should Assist, Offer Their Almanac for 1869 and History of the Late Rebellion from 1860 to 1865. It's interesting that this almanac is partly an appeal to the public for assistance to veterans — by asking them to purchase the almanac from a veteran. The almanac also contains a chronology of the Civil War, as well as advertisements for medicinal cures.
Almanacs were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they came in many forms. But why was this particular almanac published? The text states: "...for assisting the Disabled Veterans of the War, the widows and orphans of those who fell in defense of our country, to earn a livelihood." Did veterans really need to sell almanacs to make money, or was the almanac used as marketing for patent medicine, but disguised by altruism?
The Lincoln administration and Congress did a great deal to enhance the benefits offered to veterans and disabled veterans after the Civil War. And over the years, there have been continuous improvements in veterans' assistance, care and benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has an interesting section about its history on its website. As with many historical records, the content of the site makes for interesting reading, but I'd have to leave the question of how accurate this information might be to those better trained in history forensics than me.
Looking back at the Civil War almanac and the VA website, and thinking about the social context of the time, we might assume the view that veterans in the 19th century were in real distress. Perhaps they were, from our current perspective, but given the context of their time — the state of medicine, the philosophy of care, and the accepted norms of society — it is more than likely that veterans were actually given adequate care and compensation during and after the Civil War. But if we review the negative comments about the state of veterans' care and compensation that came up during World War I and World War II, we notice a growing sense of discontentment among veterans.
My own story began over forty years ago in November 1968, when I enlisted in the Army. I eventually found my way to Vietnam in May 1969. Since that time, I have witnessed the knee-jerk reactions of the U.S. government and the public against veterans' claims of PTSD and the ill effects of Agent Orange. It was almost as if there was real resentment that prevented the public from accepting that these problems actually existed.
This is in contrast to World War I, when both the government and the American public seemed to accept the fact that veterans required medical care and compensation to treat the effects of toxic gas weapons, tuberculosis, and "shell shock" mental conditions. But by the Vietnam era of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, PTSD and the effects of Agent Orange were viewed as the illegitimate children of the veterans of an unpopular war. Perhaps the public and the government thought that these veterans were just money-grubbing, and that they deserved whatever they got.
This kind of peculiar mentality seemed to carry forward with doubts about the Gulf War Syndrome, the effects of depleted uranium exposure, and other maladies that have been reported in recent military campaigns. As I see it, most of the detractors of the newer "service-connected" illnesses may have a distorted view: that combat troops are like tourists who are never exposed to anything, and live in comfortable, Western style conditions while they are deployed. That is not true. As most veterans know all too well, combat troops are almost always in constant physical contact with environment, insects, reptiles, mammals big and small, birds, dust, dirt, mud, bacteria, viruses, chemicals and the "by-products" of the combat arms, being exposed to dangers great and small. A person's immune system can also be weakened by prolonged physical and mental stress, leading to a host of problems not normally associated with "the good life." Think about what it's like to live 24/7 in a place where there was always someone wanting to "blow you away."
Nowadays, the government, the military and others often rush to judgment about the effects of service with epidemiological studies that are highly suspect in accuracy. They consider the findings of these studies an end unto themselves, instead of trying to validate problems that the veterans are experiencing through cause and effect in a science-based way.
I consider Walter Reed, in the photograph to the left, to be the last great epidemiologist. (Major Walter Reed, M.D., was a U.S. Army physician who in 1900 led the team which postulated and confirmed the theory that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, rather than by direct contact. This insight gave impetus to the new fields of epidemiology and biomedicine and most immediately allowed the resumption and completion of work on the Panama Canal (1904-14) by the United States.) Walter Reed would turn over in his grave if he knew how far his profession had sunk, and how hieroglyphic-like formulas are misused with reckless abandon in the field of epidemiology. I have seen all kinds of data manipulations that show the results people want to hear. Against this backdrop of confusion, the veteran must keep on with his or her life while waiting for answers about conditions and compensations that are of great personal concern to him or her. In my 40 years of experience as a veteran, PTSD still draws fire from those who have never experienced the disorder. I have yet to find a veteran diagnosed with PTSD who denies that it exists. Why do we not see this kind of polarized public debate about schizophrenia, depression, or illnesses from chemical and physical agents hidden under the sink?
The good news is that I have also seen a dramatic rise in interest in assisting veterans with their issues — even "controversial" ones. Vet centers are now available as a resource for information, or just a place to go and talk. The VA is attempting to streamline its claims processing with a trial program whereby a change to an existing claim does not mean that the claim has to start over, but is picked up mid-stream with less time to acceptance or denial. But while this is an improvement if it works and is adopted, it is a clue to perhaps some deeper problems within the VA that need addressing.
I am also very pleased to see that the general public is taking an interest in troops and new veterans. The psychological support that this gives those of us who serve, or have served, is immeasurable. This interest from the public has been growing since the Gulf War. On the other hand, the public today may not have as much understanding of military combat life as it did in the past; cataclysmic explosions are always dramatic, but crawling through the dirt is not, although it is frequently a real hazard.
In my view, the veteran's past, present, and future, when taken as a flow of events, problems and controversies, is moving in a positive direction. Future veterans will have it "better" because of the increased attention and support, personal and public support, that we give the veterans of today.
Vietnam veteran. On coping with PTSD and lessons from Vietnam.
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