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

Roy Bowman will never forget what happened in the jungles of Vietnam.

Conversely, he likely won't ever remember what happened the night he got in a bar fight in Lawton, and a man he was fighting ended up dead.

Bowman has been in prison for 36 years for a second-degree murder conviction.

Before he was arrested, Bowman was drinking excessively, trying to fight off the mental health issues he faced after the Vietnam War.

“This may sound crazy, but I do thank God that I was incarcerated because it gave me a chance to seek help and get help,” Bowman said.

Veterans represent about 10 percent of the population in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections prison facilities. An estimated 1,500 veterans are incarcerated in correctional centers in Oklahoma, according to DOC data.

About 3,000 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers returned from Afghanistan earlier this year.

State military leaders and mental health professionals have implemented programs in Oklahoma in an effort to keep service members out of the state's correctional facilities.

A look at the past

In 1980, Robert Powitzky was chief of psychology for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He found himself writing the bureau's first PTSD program as a result of the significant increase in Vietnam veterans in prison.

“We were just swamped with Vietnam veterans,” Powitzky said.

In 1998, an estimated 56,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and 18,500 Persian Gulf War-era veterans were incarcerated in state and federal prisons, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

People did not understand what Vietnam veterans went through, he said.

“We didn't understand how a good person could enter the military and turn to drugs and suffer mental health problems as a result of the military experience,” Powitzky said. “I think we have a much better understanding of that.”

Powitzky said he anticipates seeing the number of incarcerated veterans increase in the next few years, but that hasn't happened just yet. He hopes diversion programs, such as veterans courts, are working.

When Bowman returned from Vietnam, no one took much interest in whether he was mentally stable.

“When you got turned loose from Vietnam, you were in the jungle today and in the street the next day, and nothing in between,” Bowman said.

When Bowman returned home from war, he was greeted with spit, swear words and racial slurs.

Tensions were high as the nation was divided on the Vietnam War.

Bowman said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which didn't exist as a term in the world of psychology then.

It wasn't until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Before this distinction was made, people would sometimes refer to soldiers who had “shell shock” or “soldier's heart.”

A national study of Vietnam veterans in the 1990s found about 830,000 male and female Vietnam theater veterans, or 26 percent, had symptoms and related functional impairment associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The National Vietnam Veterans' Readjustment Study also found other psychological disorders common among Vietnam veterans included alcohol abuse and dependence, along with anxiety and personality disorders.


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...
+ show more


Trending Now


AROUND THE WEB

  1. 1
    Sex Valley: Tech's booming prostitution trade
  2. 2
    Colorado Is Consuming Way More Pot Than Anyone Ever Believed
  3. 3
    What Dan Gilbert said to LeBron James to get him to return to Cleveland
  4. 4
    Female Yahoo Exec Sued By a Female Employee for Sexual Harassment
  5. 5
    A company wants you to experiment on Facebook — by quitting
+ show more