Holiday time can be particularly difficult for baby boomer vets suffering decades of PTSD

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Baby boomer Douglas Nelson not only lived through the war in Vietnam, but also, by working for more than a half-decade as a Veteran Services representative, he has lived through the post-war traumas of fellow vets. He has now written a book about his own experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. From his home in San Jose, California, he wrote this piece for the rest of us. He calls it, “Here’s To Ya, Bob.”

On Christmas Eve a few years ago, the Veterans Administration Vet Center director brought in a homeless man about my age. The man had told the director, when she asked, that he had served in Vietnam. I then asked him about what he did there and he just said, “Artillery.”

Douglas Nelson today.

Douglas Nelson today.

I had to probe for details, such as his unit, its location, and the year(s) he was there. The web page for his artillery regiment included a list of soldiers killed in action. He broke into tears when he heard me read the first name.

“Bob, I know what you’re feeling. I lost friends, too,” I told him. “We can do a simple paperwork exercise that will get you VA medical care for life, a monthly check, and off the street.” He took an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude, and after staying in the reception room until closing time, he went back out into the cold.

It was only because he lost friends to incoming fire that his claim moved quickly. Bob has been rated 100 percent disabled for PTSD and is compensated accordingly. He is in Montana now, being the cowboy he always wanted to be.

Douglas Nelson in front of his tent in Vietnam, 1968.

Douglas Nelson in front of his tent in Vietnam, 1968.

When I came to work for my county as a veterans services representative to assist and help guide vets through their Department of Veterans Affairs paperwork, the VA was requiring them to “prove” they were in combat. I began tackling claims that had previously been denied because these veterans had rolled up their life-altering experiences with their faded uniforms and put them on the top shelf at the back of their minds, to preserve their sanity. Dates and places were elusive. Google became my good friend; I input units, locations, and approximate dates to place these artillery, truck, combat engineer, river patrol, and other units in combat situations that showed up in military history.

[Douglas Nelson's book on PTSD is available at Amazon.com - Making Peace with Military Post-Traumatic Stress: Getting Help and Taking Charge of Your Healing]

A change in VA law in mid-2010 made my job easier, lightening the burden of proof for documenting exposure to combat stress for the vet without direct combat experience. A truck driver, for example, needs to document only that he was trained as a truck driver and was in a transportation unit in Vietnam. To claim post-traumatic stress disorder, he would need a statement that he has the symptoms, from a clinician at a VA Vet Center or VA Mental Health Clinic.

An evening football game near Phong Dien, Quang Tri Province, 1968.

An evening football game near Phong Dien, Quang Tri Province, 1968.

Former Army General Erik K. Shinseki, Secretary of the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs, is a combat-wounded veteran himself. He was instrumental in relieving his brother veterans of this burden of proof.

Since you’re a baby boomer, you lived through the trauma of Vietnam, so you should read up on PTSD. “Post-traumatic” means “after the fact,” even if it has been forty years. And if you’re a veteran from that era and you have the extreme anxiety, survivor guilt, displaced anger, and sleeplessness that are typical symptoms, take your military discharge documents to the closest VA Vet Center or VA Mental Health Clinic. Once you begin your treatment, get to your state or local veterans services representative to file your claim. Let the first day you walk into a VA Vet Center be the first day of your healing process.

The National Institute of Health’s site for PTSD.

6 Comments

    1. Greg,

      I hope you’re a very high priority status in the VA health care system, and I hope you are receiving compensation for the effects of combat. If not, take your DD214 to the nearest Vet Center, tell them you have some issues with your combat experience and let them take it from there. Vet Centers and compensation are federal law; our Congress voted to give us these.

      1. Doug,

        PTSD is a major issue in America with so many vets, I believe, and there is too little media attention to it. Thanks for this story, and I hope you consider future pieces on the subject.

        David

  1. Been to the VA and if your cookie doesn’t fit the nice little cookie cutter treatment programs they have………………………………………………What then?

    They said they’d contact me…………..that was almost 1 1/2 yrs ago.

    I live in Phoenix Az.

    1. This is a frequent comment from veterans. Is the issue health care or a claim? The VA can come across as real jerks when a vet goes to them initially to enroll in the care system. You fill out the income form, you may or may not be told you make too much money (even in retirement!) and you don’t hear from them again. If its health care you want, go back with your DD214.
      If you have symptoms of PTSD, go the the mental health clinic OR the nearest Vet Center, telling them you have issues from war situations you were in. If the health issue is an Agent Orange disease (there are 13 of them, see VA.gov) and you were boots on the ground in Nam, get to a claims office with your treatment records. If the cookie to be cut is a disease NOT on the Agent Orange list, even if you were in ‘Nam, the cutter won’t fit.
      Discuss your specific issue with a local vet rep. Hold your state, county or vets’ organization claims rep to the promise to be there for you.

      1. Dustoff medic-did my first tour in Vietnam and extended twice and my issue is PTSD.

        All of the treatment “programs” they have require that you be able to talk about Vietnam and I can’t. Not “don’t want to”…….can’t.

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