Sunday, November 10, 2013

American Veterans of the Vietnam War – The Health Sacrifices Many Never See

Health Effects Experienced by Veterans of Vietnam War - Photo by MSgt Mark Moore
Over 2.5 million people served in American uniform in Southern Vietnam and adjacent waters. The average infantryman saw approximately 240 days of combat in a year, while over 58,000 gave the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. The resulting physical, mental, and emotional health effects experienced by surviving veterans have impacted these men and women and countless family members, friends, and society as a whole.

Many of these veterans felt immediate health effects due to serving. According to the Department of Defense's Military Advisors Reflect on Vietnam War Experiences, retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zini said, "By the time my advisory tour was coming near to its end....I had contracted malaria, mononucleosis, dysentery and hepatitis..."

Veterans of the Vietnam Conflict may experience long-term health problems related to serving. These health issues may take years to develop. Examples include:
  • respiratory cancers
  • chloracne
  • porphyria cutanea tarda
  • multiple myeloma
  • Hodgkin's disease
  • non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • soft tissue sarcoma
  • prostate cancer
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • type 2 diabetes
  • ischemic heart disease
  • hearing deficits
To put a personal view on the list above, take a mental picture of returning to a dermatologist every few weeks to have multiple skin cancers surgically removed from one's face, inside one's ears, and on one's arms. Imagine having to wear a colostomy bag. Consider enduring chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments. Think about watching a small injury get worse and worse because the body has inadequate circulation to heal the area and eventually losing that limb. Picture losing one's ability to see due to complications of diabetes. Imagine having a child born with spina bifida due to effects of Agent Orange.

Visiting The Wall - Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Barbara L. Bailey
The mental and emotional cost of serving a tour in Vietnam can run deeper than physical wounds. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) haunts many veterans, sometimes appearing years after serving. Many cannot talk about a time that they wish were erased from a part of a mind still etched with crystal-clear scenes that reappear any time a passing motorist beeps to say hello or when a child drops a toy. Sights, smells and sounds of gunfire and grenades, hearing tigers roar and helicopters hum, swimming in snake-infested waters, or feeling the rain of Orange may replay over and over in dreams by night and flashbacks by day.

Many veterans of the Vietnam War remain silent about having served. Their families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances may have no idea they are veterans.  For some veterans, that life chapter is closed, never to be opened again. However, many who remained silent for decades are now starting to share their stories – an amazing gift for current and future generations.

Some veterans of the Vietnam War found life to be too painful. They found that the fight to survive in Vietnam left a hole within their souls, unable to be filled with the love of others, substances, activity, or inactivity. Those who love them mourn the loss of someone they desperately wanted to help with resources that seemed blatantly inadequate.

Rolling Thunder Patriotism - Photo by Lance Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright
For many, the black MIA-POW flag will always fly with the Stars and Bars. Some have found a way to channel that fierce loyalty into service to other veterans by helping them to gain benefits long overdue. Many have provided information instrumental in helping to retrieve remains left on foreign soil. Some finished tours of duty to make good on promises made in the heat of battle. They may continue conversations with comrades at reunions, while many are available to do anything for a fellow veteran at a moment's notice.

According to some sources, 91% of American veterans who served in Vietnam say they were glad to serve, and 74% say they would do it again, even with knowledge of the outcome. They are often amazingly innovative thinkers who can find a solution to nearly any problem thrown their way. You'll find many of these veterans continuing to serve in very quite and unassuming ways, such as helping to provide military rites at a funeral or manning a table to increase awareness and handing out poppies near an area business as Veterans Day or Memorial Day approaches. They may be the go-to person whenever a car breaks down or a home repair is needed.

Despite health challenges, veterans who served in Vietnam are a tough group. They are survivors. They keep on keeping on and live each day. They deal with the setbacks and figure out what will work today. I, for one, wish to thank these veterans for their service and veterans and their families for their sacrifice. Feel free to add your own thanks in the comment section at the bottom of this article.

Surviving American Veterans of Vietnam War - Photo by Artaxerxes
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