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Vietnam veterans serve as lesson to mental health officials

When veterans of the Vietnam War returned home, not many were prepared for the psychological issues that some of these returning veterans faced. Some ended up self medicating with alcohol and drugs, which led them down a path to prison.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: July 8, 2012

/articleid/3690583/1/pictures/1768543">Photo - Inmates share their stories about life after war and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo by Darryl Golden, The Oklahoman
Inmates share their stories about life after war and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo by Darryl Golden, The Oklahoman

Upon his return, Bowman self-medicated his symptoms of PTSD with alcohol.

He would often drink heavily, including the February night in 1976 when he got into an argument at the Play Pen Lounge in Lawton.

Prosecutors alleged that Bowman and Michael J. Perkins got into a fight at the bar. Bowman and a few others forced Perkins into a car. They drove to the Wichita Mountains National Refuge near Lawton and Bowman beat Perkins with a tire tool. Perkins was found dead the following day, court records show.

Although Bowman said he does not remember all the details of that night, he does not deny he committed the crime.

PTSD alone will not cause a person to commit murder, said Bret Moore, a former Army psychologist and Iraq veteran.

“PTSD does not cause you to rob a bank or to murder, in my opinion, but PTSD and untreated PTSD and untreated depression can lead to substance use as a way to self-medicate,” Moore said. “We've been self-medicating with alcohol and drugs since the beginning of time, and it's no different for these guys coming back who are having some really significant stuff they're dealing with.”

And substance use and abuse mixed with PTSD can lead to poor decision making, which could lead to criminal behavior, said Moore, co-author of “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment.”

But, for example, if a veteran goes to a public place and uses a weapon to harm several people, a PTSD diagnosis shouldn't be seen as the sole reason he or she did that, he said.

The present and future

Bowman, who turns 70 this year, has been serving a 10-years-to-life sentence for more than half his life now.

He is involved in the prison's Messianic community, which has outreach programs for veterans.

“Now, praise God, I got my family back,” Bowman said. “I'm getting my brains back, sort of. There's still nights I don't sleep good, there's still things that flashback in my mind, and there's still things we all go through.”

Bowman was incarcerated before things like drug courts and veterans courts were established in Oklahoma.

In the county where Bowman was convicted, Fred Smith, the Comanche and Cotton County district attorney, is working to help veterans before they spiral out of control.

In the past few months, Smith and his staff have developed a veteran treatment court as an offshoot of drug court.

The program wasn't created because Smith and his staff were seeing a large number of veterans. However, Lawton is home to Fort Sill, where thousands of service members and their families live. Smith anticipated that, when the soldiers began returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, he would start to see them in his office.

“We expect more honorably discharged veterans to encounter such things as substance abuse and domestic abuse issues, things that may result in them being referred to the criminal justice system,” Smith said.

The majority of veterans won't go to jail or prison or end up having severe enough mental health issues that law enforcement gets involved, said Steve Scruggs, a clinical psychologist at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center.

“There's not really great statistics on violence and PTSD but anecdotally, I can tell you very few of our folks are violent,” said Scruggs, an Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom readjustment program team leader.

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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