Tags: Dr. Robert Ursano, Malcolm Gladwell, Mitchell Center for POW Studies, post-traumatic growth, PTSD, resiliency, Tom Collins, Tom McNish, Vietnam POWs
By The Bunny
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.
According to a number of studies, the human body is amazingly resilient and copes well with trauma — both physical and emotional. In a November 2004 New Yorker article, best-selling author and cutlure watcher Malcolm Gladwell analyzed the survivors of World War II combat trauma and compared them to the victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and to those who had recently lost a spouse or a child. He found that the majority of victims of severe trauma like that experienced in bloody combat, the betrayal of CSA or the loss of an immediate family member usually get on with their lives and do not experience long-term negative effects of PTSD.
Tom Collins, a former Air Force pilot who was held as a POW in North Vietnam for more than seven years, has also survived the untimely loss of a child. A medical doctor, his son died of hepatitis contracted at work at the age of 34. Asked which was harder to endure — the loss of his son or the POW experience, both Tom and his wife Donnie say the loss of their son was the hardest experience of their lives. But these multiple hardships have not destroyed them or their marriage. They seem to enjoy retirement, their grandchildren and each other.
Gladwell summarizes human coping mechanisms in this way: “By far the most common response [to trauma] was resilience: the majority of those who had just suffered from one of the most painful experiences of their lives never lapsed into serious depression, experienced a relatively brief period of grief symptoms, and soon returned to normal functioning. These people were not necessarily the hardiest or the healthiest. They just managed, by one means or another, to muddle through.”
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.'”
This sentiment is echoed repeatedly by the Vietnam POWs. They experienced a different type of trauma. After their violent shoot-downs during aerial attacks over North Vietnam, these men — most of whom were combat aviators — were largely shielded from field combat, as they were isolated in a decripit prison in downtown Hanoi. However, the uncertainty of when they would next be tortured and when they would be released — if ever — brought its own psychological horrors.
Most of them say they would not like to repeat the experience. But would they trade the experience? No. The same Washington Post article cited a 1980 study of the Vietnam POWs, indicating that 61 percent of those surveyed “believed their experience was ultimately beneficial. Tom McNish, a former Air Force pilot who was a prisoner in North Vietnam for six years, said, ‘There is no question in my mind that the experience I had in Vietnam has had an overall very positive effect on my life. But I don’t recommend it for anybody else. And I don’t want to have to do it again.'”
So, what does this teach us? Given time, good physical and mental health care, and continued appreciation for their service and sacrifice, most of our returning veterans will not just survive, but they will thrive. This generation of veterans is only beginning to show us their mettle. We need only look at the generations before us for examples.
To read more about how the Vietnam POWs rebuilt their lives after those prison doors opened and more accounts of their resiliency, go to www.opendoorsbook.com.