The second part of this series focuses on how those who served in Afghanistan can learn from those who served in Vietnam.
While the conflicts are different, there are parallels.
Each operation had U.S. involvement for about two decades. Both countries had a low initial amount of forces. Both later had a surge in forces. U.S. forces in both theaters fought an enemy that hid among the people. The U.S. participation in the Vietnam War started ending in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. The U.S. withdrew, leaving the country to determine a path ahead. In Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal will leave Afghans to determine their own future.
Emotions on Afghanistan
When the announcement came that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan this year, it triggered a complicated wave of emotions through those who served in the country. Air Force Veteran Scott Watson is one of them.
Watson spent a year in Afghanistan from July 2009 to July 2010. He worked for Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan as the Afghan National Army fuels officer, the top level of the supply chain when it came to fuel. He spent a year separated from his daughter.
“It was a mix of disappointment and relief,” Watson said about hearing the news. “I’m disappointed that we’re leaving, and I don’t feel like we’re done training the Afghan security forces. At the same time, I’m relieved that I don’t ever have to go see names of people that I know redeploying to this place where it’s just Groundhog Day every day.”
Vet Centers help Veterans and service members who deployed to areas of hostility or who experience certain types of trauma while serving, as well as their families.
Veterans coming together
The withdrawals are an experience that Afghanistan and Vietnam Veterans share.
One of the ways Afghanistan and Vietnam Veterans come together is through Vet Centers. Vet Centers operate outside of the traditional medical model, where eligible Veterans, service members and their families can come together to find meaning in their service. Talking through these shared experiences helps, and there’s no time limit or additional cost for services.
“I’ve got Vietnam Veterans who are still coming here, not because we failed to resolve any issue in their life, but because they found a home in the community,” said Joe Lasky, director of the Las Vegas Vet Center. “They found friendships and a way to come talk and deal with issues that may have started in Vietnam, but now affect their current health. Because Vet Centers are readjustment counseling, that’s defined by every Veteran who comes in here.”
Lasky can see the bonds because he’s an Afghanistan Veteran himself. He served on active duty in the 1st Ranger Battalion for four years, then joined the National Guard.
Vet Centers provide help
It was the Vietnam Veterans who created those first grass roots Vet Centers, as early as the 1970’s, because of a lack of trust that their service and trauma could be understood, as well as a seemingly limited access to VA benefits and services. Today, Vet Centers help Veterans and service members who deployed to areas of hostility or who experience certain types of trauma while serving, as well as their families. In doing so, professional counselors and outreach staff work with individuals from all generations. Counselors help to identify goals and work to create support structures to accomplish those goals and overall aid in the readjustment of those who served. That ranges from assisting in referrals for VA benefits like GI Bill or VA home loans to more traditional counseling. Counseling can include individual, group, couples and family counseling, tackling symptoms associated with anger management or improving relationships.
Vietnam Veterans created grass roots Vet Centers as early as the 1970s.
Lasky said Vet Centers also try to get Veterans together for activity-based groups based on the local needs and desires of the community the Vet Center is in. These may include activities ranging from outdoor recreational trips, yoga classes, gardening groups to music, art and writing groups. During these engagements, the goal is for Veterans and service members to open up about their experiences.
“I’ve seen a willingness to try to do a lot of mentoring from the Vietnam Veterans,” Lasky said. Since the Vietnam Veterans are decades removed from conflict, many, he said, will offer up advice to younger Veterans to not repeat any mistakes they might have made.
Linking up Veterans
Lasky said when he was the Vet Center director in Yuma, Arizona, Vietnam Veterans would link up with Marines from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. During trips, sometimes done with fishing poles in hand, the older Veterans would help talk through difficult issues.
“The Vietnam Vets really liked it because they like to be able to say, ‘We understand, we’ve been dealing with this for years, so let’s talk about,’” Lasky said.
Many times, Vietnam Veterans would pass along guidance of focusing on the personal level of service. They would focus on “Did I do my job to the best of my ability and support my brothers and sisters to the best of my ability?” Lasky added.
“What came out of that was friendships and bonding and experiences that have united the generations,” he said. “Two generations from separate eras, but they have that shared conflict. They were there at different times and a different space, but they support each other.
Now he hopes the Afghanistan Veterans will come in to bond with their fellow warriors.
“Let’s just remove the era and be Veterans of conflict together, and see what we can talk about, recognize and resolve,” he said. “A lot of them are on the same path, maybe a little farther down the road. Maybe there’s a bonding we can learn from.”
Parallels and lessons
Because of the parallels, past lessons from Vietnam Veterans can help Afghanistan Veterans.
“It is likely that part of why Vietnam Veterans have struggled is because of their homecoming. That may have made it harder time finding meaning when that conflict ended,” said Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the National Center for PTSD Consultation Program.
“The closure helps people demarcate how people feel about things,” Vasterling said. “Without closure, there’s just a lot more room for ambiguity.”
Veterans may have trouble adjusting because the conflict is not ending with victory parades, but with an announcement.
“People are looking for meaning,” Norman said. “What did it mean that I went there, what did it mean that I risked my life, what does it mean that I saw other people lose their life? In some ways, the celebration gives it some meaning, gives it a lens to look through for that experience. If you don’t have that, you’re left to figure it out on your own.”
Because of the similarities in the U.S. end to the conflict, Norman said Veterans need to address their PTSD issues.
“With this more ambiguous conflict where we had some successes, we’re leaving with things still uncertain, there’s a lot more room for people to have interpretations that can have very big impacts and long-term consequences for their mental health,” Norman said.
Vet Centers are community-based counseling centers that provide a wide range of social and psychological services, including professional readjustment counseling to eligible Veterans, service members – including National Guard and Reserve components – and their families.
Readjustment counseling is offered to make a successful transition from military to civilian life or after a traumatic event experienced in the military. Individual, group, marriage and family counseling is offered in addition to referral and connection to other VA or community benefits and services. Vet Center counselors and outreach staff, many of whom are Veterans themselves, are experienced and prepared to discuss the tragedies of war, loss, grief and transition after trauma.
Other helpful options are peer support specialists and peer support groups. Veterans interested in participating in peer support need a referral from their Mental Health Service provider. Peer support specialists are a group who draw on past experiences to help bridge the gap between Veteran and provider. Peer support groups are a place where Veterans can discuss day-to-day problems with other people who have been through trauma. Support groups have not been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms, but they can help Veterans feel better in other ways.
“They’ve all served, deployed and now gone through treatment,” Norman said. “They’re now sort of in this bridge role between the Veteran and the clinician.”
By Air Force Veteran Adam Stump is a member of VA's Digital Media Engagement team.
Each year, the Veterans Day National Committee hosts the annual Veterans Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery. This year, 33 communities in 25 states and the District of Columbia will also host VA-recognized Veterans Day observances to pay tribute to America’s heroes.