Fifty Years On: Vietnam Vets Still Coming into Treatment for the First Time

The year 2017 has been designated as the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.  I confess 50 years is hard for me to imagine. I’m sure I’m not the only one who never thought I’d make it out of combat nor through the dark days of our first coming home.  There are many Vietnam vets out there still searching for a way home from the war.

Recently I had the privilege to speak to veterans at a Vet Center in California’s Central Coast.  Mike Young, head of the Center at San Luis Obispo, and I have some history of our own. He came to the National Veterans Foundation as a college student from Professor Lawrence Tritle’s class on the Vietnam War.  Mike volunteered at first, then interned with us, and last, Mike was our Director of Operations while he began his post-graduate study in social work.  From the beginning, he’s been an advocate for veterans, especially for Vietnam vets.

The gathering was to mark the 50th anniversary of that war. After the speeches, I was moved by vets sharing their experiences…get this…for the first time.  Fifty years have passed, and these vets still carry such vivid memories, and of course, invisible wounds.

I’ve worked with vets, for vets, for over forty years.  The Vet Center program was my baby, and still that meeting last week on the Central Coast was a wake-up call for me. For many Vietnam vets, it’s still not over. Many have yet to be able to talk about their experiences.  That’s what Vet Centers are for…to offer a place where vets can open up in the presence of other vets who know what it’s like. There are now over 300 Vet Centers across the nation. They offer counseling for combat, suicide risk, and transition to civilian life but also for MST (military sexual trauma) for men and women vets. The Vet Center call center at 877-WAR-VETS operates 24/7. And the centers have broadened their outreach with bereavement counseling for family members. As you know, the VA operates a 24/7 crisis call center in addition to medical services and counseling. This doesn’t take into account other community-based organizations, or veterans organizations like the NVF.

What struck me last week was how are we still missing so many?  How can there still be so many coming into treatment for the first time? Maybe we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  Just having resources in place doesn’t ensure a connection. The only thing that has the power to connect veterans to resources and the help they need …is another caring person.  It’s a one-on-one thing. That’s why the NVF Lifeline for Vets works.  It’s vet-to-vet. That’s the model we used for the Vet Center Program.

I think of Paula Kaplan saying that one engaged listener can do a powerful lot of good.  How many of us have that in our own lives, I wonder?  You know…someone to just sit and listen to you process something. It’s easy to imagine how unusual and valuable that would be, right?

Someone to listen.  All of us know someone who’s served.  How many stories are locked up because no one asked?  This might be especially true of women vets because so few self-identify as veterans. How many vets, men and women, could we reach if we started by offering to sit and listen?

Let’s help publicize the resources available. From Vet Centers to the VA to state veterans departments to social services, but let’s start by asking to hear a veteran’s story.  If you know a veteran who needs help, here’s our Lifeline for Vets: 888.777.4443.

You can be a part of our mission to help Veterans by making a tax-deductible donation!

About the Author

Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.


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