Friday, February 12, 2010

What Can The Vietnam POWs Teach Today’s Combat Veterans

Not as much as a "phenomenon" as it is the human spirit and the combination of the assumption of needing to take action to heal them. There is an assumption of psychological/spiritual damage done when a POW is released and they get attention for it. There is also an assumption of damage done beyond the body when they lose a limb or survived a horrific event. Again, they get attention for it as soon as possible. Their minds are regarded as equally important in the healing as medical care. For the rest, there has been no assumptions made other than push them on, medicate if necessary and get them back into the battle.

Indeed, there is a phenomenon called “post-traumatic growth” that psychological experts are only recently recognizing and defining. This is a condition where victims of trauma actually experience a type of psychological enhancement as a result of the experience. While hard to articulate and rationalize — given the plethora of research on the devastating effects of PTSD, post-traumatic growth is evident in anecdotes cited by combat veterans from many wars, including our current conflict. In a Washington Post article from November of 2005, staff writer Michael Ruane reported on this trend: “Eighteen months after [Hilbert] Caesar’s right leg was mangled by a roadside bomb near Baghdad, and after weeks of coming to terms with what he thought was the end of his life, the former Army staff sergeant believes he has emerged a richer person — wiser, more compassionate and more appreciative of life. Asked whether he would endure it all again, he replied, ‘The guys I served with were awesome guys….I would go through it again — for the guys that I served with. Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn’t change it for the world.’”

The human spirit is remarkable! We see others go through what we think there is no way we would be able to survive it, but they carry on. It is not until we have survived a similar experience that we are able to understand how they survived, and in some cases, thrived.

It all depends on what and who helps them after. The assumption of the need rushes in help but when we avoid the fact others suffer after traumatic events inside their body, we lose time to help them heal.

What Can The Vietnam POWs Teach Today’s Combat Veterans?
February 2010
Today marks the 37th anniversary of the homecoming of our POWs from Vietnam — still the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history. No other POWs from any other conflict have been held as long as these 600+ men were. Surprisingly, despite their unprecedented ordeal, only four percent of them have experienced long-term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, according to a study conducted by the Mitchell Center for POW Studies in Pensacola, Florida, and the Pennsylvania State University Population Research Institute. By comparison, the general Vietnam veteran population experienced a rate of PTSD of more than 30 percent. Why is that? Despite being held in isolation for months or years at a time, despite being physically tortured on a regular basis, despite not knowing when they would be released — if ever, these men returned home mostly intact physically and psychologically.

It is instructive to note that the POWs’ average age was over 30, much older than the average soldier serving in Vietnam. They were also more educated and more specially trained. These factors do not predetermine mental health, but age and maturity can provide better mental “shock absorbers” against life’s traumas. In addition, this group of men was given an unusual amount of attention upon returning from Vietnam. Most of the soldiers, sailors and Marines returning from Vietnam did not receive homecoming parades, keys to their hometown cities or a White House dinner in their honor. But the POWs did. Many of them were thrust into the spotlight and became their hometown heroes. This undoubtedly aided their healing process. However, after the parades and parties were over, these men returned to relatively “normal” and private lives — as fathers, sons, husbands, neighbors and co-workers…not unlike the soldiers, sailors and Marines who are coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq today. How will these returning servicemen and women fare physically and emotionally over the next few decades? The experience of these POWs and their long-term health may be a helpful indicator and could be a source of advice for those responsible for the long-term care of our recently returned warriors.
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What Can The Vietnam POWs Teach Todays Combat Veterans

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