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.”
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.
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.
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.