Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

Vietnam in the Later Family: Self-Reported Symptoms and Interpretations of Posttraumatic Stress

Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

Vietnam in the Later Family: Self-Reported Symptoms and Interpretations of Posttraumatic Stress

Article excerpt

"I just didn't fit in." This comment is typical of Vietnam War combat veterans who returned home "to sit in my mother's kitchen," often within days of firing at enemy soldiers (Kovach, 2006). This research reports on the phenomenological analysis of qualitative interviews with 10 Vietnam War infantry combat veterans who live in Ohio and Michigan. These are no longer the just-home soldiers, young husbands and fathers of early Vietnam veteran research. Rather, they are aging husbands, divorced men, and grandfathers who are nearing the ends of their careers or have already retired. For the purposes of this article, the later family is conceptualized as advanced in time/age and in structural complexity. Research has demonstrated that most veterans reentered civilian life successfully, even in the face of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms (Kulka et al., 1990a, 1990b). Nonetheless, these symptoms remain; they may fade over time, but they do not disappear. This research asks: How do Vietnam veterans understand their combat experiences and the sometimes-disabling PTSD symptoms that they attribute to Vietnam? This research also describes the efforts of veterans to interpret symptoms and their influence on everyday life in the later family.

PTSD has been the primary frame for research on Vietnam veterans, providing a complex understanding of the personal mental health and social consequences of combat. The diagnosis was first outlined by the American Psychiatric Association in the 1980 edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), revised in 1987, 1994, 2000, and most recently with the 2013 edition of the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2012, 2013) in response to research and clinical practice. Community studies reveal an 8% lifetime prevalence rate for PTSD in the U.S. adult population. With a range of severity, this disorder is marked by specific criteria:

1. exposure to a traumatic event (in this case, combat violence during the Vietnam War) and resultant feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or horror (this last descriptor was removed in the 2013 edition);

2. re-experiencing by intrusive thoughts, memories, nightmares, feelings or actions of reliving the event ("flashbacks"), or intense emotional reaction to reminders;

3. avoidance behaviors related to reminders or cues, and numbing of affect or detachment;

4. negative changes in cognition and mood (some of these elements were included in #3 above in the 2000 edition);

5. increased arousal that may include sleep disruption, anger, hypervigilance, difficulty of concentration, or exaggerated startling;

6. duration of symptoms 2, 3, 4, and 5 of more than one month; and

7. significant distress or impairment of social, occupational, or other important functions (APA, 2000, 2013).

The diagnostic criteria are specific about number of symptoms, in what combination, and duration. PTSD interferes with intimate family relationships and social functioning in the wider world of work and the community.

Figures on living Vietnam-era and Vietnam-theater veterans are confusing because of differences in parameters: reports include the spans of 1961-1975, 1964-1973, 1964-1975, and 1965-1973 (Brady, 2011; Committee to Review, 1994, p. 80). Additionally, Vietnam theater is defined as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and adjacent waters, but some reports include Thailand. Census Bureau reports estimate roughly 7.5 million living Vietnam era and 3.5 million living Vietnam theater veterans, with an age range of mid-fifties to late seventies (Brady, 2011; U.S. Census, 2011). The literature related to Vietnam veterans is robust, making it impossible to provide a comprehensive review in this paper. Major topics outlined below include determiners of military service, stress reactions, mitigation of stress, and the influence on veterans' families.

Who Fought in Vietnam?

Researchers disagree on the social characteristics that influenced who fought in Vietnam. …

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