Vietnam and mental health

The Temple Two of ‘Sugar & Spice’, at Freedom Hill, Da Nang, South Vietnam, Photo: courtesy of Beverly Goldsmith

The Temple Two of ‘Sugar & Spice’, at Freedom Hill, Da Nang, South Vietnam,
Photo: courtesy of Beverly Goldsmith

Being bombed, shot at, flown over enemy territory in a helicopter gunship, and performing on a stage where Australian Cathy Wayne had been shot dead just days earlier. These are lasting memories of my time as a singer during  the Vietnam war.

I recall my wartime experiences each ANZAC Day, as Australia pauses to honour the men and women who’ve served in all theatres of conflict, and to remember those who died in them. Across the nation dawn services are conducted, followed by parades where flags flutter, bands play, and crowds cheer in streets lined with grateful citizens – young and old.

Although the many service personnel who march on ANZAC Day hold their heads high, there’s a darker side to this time of commemoration. Many who served in the Vietnam War, returned home with major psychological trauma, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression, as well as alcohol and drug problems. This has sometimes led to instances of suicide. The profound personal crisis of many of the soldiers involved in the war has been vividly represented in films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.

While physical battle scars are visible for all to see, it’s the mental ones that can be the hardest to combat. Vietnam was a politically unpopular war, exacerbated by the fact that young men were conscripted to fight. Many who returned as veterans of this conflict were despised and shunned, treated with indifference, and sometimes even with open hostility. There was no praise or glory for them. Sadly they’d participated in a war that many in the general community simply wanted to forget.

According to Professor David Dunt , Founding Director of the Centre for Health Policy, Programs and Economics, Melbourne School of Population Health, The University of Melbourne, “It wasn’t until the Vietnam Veterans “Welcome Home” March of 1987 that public sentiment started to change but by then it was too late. A half generation of young men were psychologically scarred not only in the medical sense…, but also through a loss of direction in life and embitterment.”

Dunt states that the high levels of mental disorders amongst veterans were linked with a massive absence of help for those returning.  However, “after Vietnam, we became much more aware of the psychological impact of war than previously. This awareness has led to changes in attitude and a greater understanding of veterans’ mental health. …The failure to properly treat Vietnam veterans, should remind us of our obligation to help returning soldiers to get the support they need.”

Most of us would agree with professor Dunt. I certainly do. In 1969, I participated in a rigorous singing tour in Vietnam – 133 shows in 120 days. Based in a Vietnamese village in Da Nang, our show travelled all over South Vietnam performing on the back of trucks, open air stages such as Freedom Hill, and at American military and fire bases.

On my return to Australia, I was underweight, exhausted, and struggling mentally to process all that I’d seen and done. For the first two weeks, I simply lay on my mother’s couch, unable to get up. There was nothing  “left in the tank”. It had been my first trip away from life in the peaceful suburbs of Melbourne.  I’d known nothing about war, racial tension, the Black Power political movement, or ‘culture shock’ before this experience.

What helped me get through the mental trauma and physical exertion was the support and prayers of my family, as well as the faith-teachings of my church which include the 91st Psalm. Prayer can be restorative – as recent studies are showing. It has a beneficial effect on one’s mental and bodily wellbeing by reducing stress and producing calm.

In her book, The SuperStress Solution, Dr. Roberta Lee writes that “Research shows that people who are more religious or spiritual use their spirituality to cope with life…They’re better able to cope with stress, they heal faster from illness, and they experience increased benefits to their health and well-being. On an intellectual level, spirituality connects you to the world, which in turn enables you to stop trying to control things all by yourself. When you feel part of a greater whole, it’s easy to understand that you aren’t responsible for everything that happens in life.”

Faith, say experts, gives us hope, and this is the ultimate stress reducer. Some doctors even believe that hope is about the best thing you can do for your body. Perhaps knowing that there is a way out of dark experiences, will give all our returned veterans hope for achieving a normal and fulfilling life. After all, they deserve it.

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I'm a Melbourne based health writer who provides a perspective on the connection between spirituality, thought and health. As a keen blogger, my aim is to provide the public with a diversity of health content including research into the mind-body connection and how thought affects health.

Comments

  1. John says

    What a timely and very helpful message for Australia’s serving and returned military and auxiliary support personnel. It’s also certain to be a welcome source of comfort and encouragement for anyone who has experienced (or is presently involved in) the severe physical and mental demands of being in a war zone. A big “thank you” for kindly sharing your inspiring individual example.

    • says

      Thank you John for your comment. My experience was very precious to me. While in Vietnam I found myself needing to pray about the safety and wellbeing of myself and those in my show on a daily basis. I was never disappointed in the results of prayer – back then or since then. I believe it is possible to recover from trauma.

  2. Carol says

    Thank you Beverly, for that very interesting article. It echoed several programmes I’ve been watching on TV lately. Just LOVED the photo – I’ll treasure that! With love.

    • says

      Hello Carol. Thank you for your comment. Glad you liked the photo. It does take one back in time. Good to know that mental health is being discussed. It’s something all Vietnam vets can experience.

  3. Simon D says

    Beverly, I agree with you that “people who are more religious or spiritual use their spirituality to cope with life…They’re better able to cope with stress”.
    As a Christian Scientist, I frequently use the ideas in the book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary baker Eddy frequently in my job, where stress is common. Time and time again it has been a life saver for me as it helps me to cope with pressure at work.

  4. says

    Thank you Simon for your comment. It’s interesting to hear that you find spirituality such a help in your work and in dealing with the stress associated with it. Glad that you agree with other visitors to this blog that the ideas in Science and Health promote good mental health.

  5. Leona says

    Beverly, what a wonderful post! You really touched me with what you shared, and I think you’re spot on with the effects of prayer and hope. And you are DARLING in that photo!

    • says

      Thank you Leona. So glad to know that you were touched by the story of my Vietnam experience…and liked the photo which was taken on a polaroid camera and handed to me after the show by an American serviceman. Such a memento, encourages me to believe that all who have served, can live a normal life after the trauma of war. Hope is something all Vietnam vets can experience.

  6. Pauline Rita Noorts says

    Movement and song give joy and release, of any stress thank you for reminding me again your conversation is most needed, Loving thoughts,
    Pauline.

    • says

      Thank you Pauline for your comment. Yes, song can lift the spirits – and it did just that for the troops we sang for. I’m glad that my post reminded you of how uplifting music can be in your life too.

  7. Diane F says

    Beverly your blog this week was very interesting because the same thing happened to our Vietnam soldiers. They came home to New Zealand in civilian clothes and unannounced. Your visit there must have been so greatly appreciated and you were very brave to do it. I remember you telling me about the time you were going out with the rest of your group to eat and you were impelled to tell them not to go. A bomb exploded in that place shortly after. Your faith in God saved you all.

    • says

      Thank you Diane for your comment. There is a strong bond between Australia and New Zealand. I’m sorry to hear that NZ Vietnam vets received similar treatment when they returned from the war. Hopefully this is now resolved there as it is here. Thank you for saying that I was brave. It did take courage and a lot of prayer during the 4 months I was there. The experience was certainly proof to me of divine Love’s protecting care.

  8. says

    I came of age during this time, and I always felt it was terrible how the returning soldiers were treated. While I didn’t agree with the war, I supported the soldiers. Many people didn’t. Bravo that you sang there. Thank you for sharing.

    • says

      Hello Karin. Thanks for leaving a comment. It’s good to know that you supported those who returned from the Vietnam war. It’s taken a long time in Australia for these Vets to receive the help they needed. I trust that all of them will find peace of mind and wellness of spirit. They deserve that.

      • says

        Part of that, I think, is acceptance. WWII was a ‘righteous’ war. My father never spoke of his time in Europe, except very occasionally when another WWII vet mentioned something that struck a chord. I think it is entirely different when a war is seen in a negative light, to then place what one has seen or done in the context of that war and a patriot. I have a friend who joined the Red Cross so she could be in Korea to support the soldiers. Had I still been in school, I likely would have gone with her, but I never heard of it at the time.

        • says

          I am sure Karin that your good thoughts continue to benefit Vietnam Vets. It wasn’t a popular conflict but it wasn’t fair to “punish” returning soldiers. It was, and still is, important to help all returning soldiers get the support they need.

    • says

      Thank you Barbara for your comment. Glad you found my post interesting. My heart goes out to those who have returned from a war zone. It’s not easy. But there is a way for them to move on from that experience and find peace of mind.