Psychologist Arthur Egendorf Discusses Why His Fellow Veterans Can't Get Over Vietnam

UPDATED 04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

For America, Vietnam is the nightmare that will not go away. Last month, eight years after the last U.S. combat troops withdrew, the aftereffects of the war made fresh headlines. First, Budget Director David Stockman announced spending cuts that would dismantle government programs aimed at aiding Vietnam veterans. Then, in sobering counterpoint, New York's City University Center for Policy Research released a federally funded eight-year study that proved scientifically what the country already knew in its heart: that veterans of Vietnam still bear lasting, perhaps permanent, emotional and psychological scars from the horrors of that war.

One of the principal authors of the five-volume study was especially qualified for the task: Arthur Egendorf, 36, went from the ivied shelter of Harvard to an Army intelligence unit in Vietnam in the 1960s, then returned to gain his Ph.D. in psychology. In the Manhattan apartment he now shares with his second wife, Lehman College English professor Sondra Perl, Egendorf discussed the meaning of his findings with Eric Levin of PEOPLE.

How many veterans are still struggling with Vietnam-induced problems?

More than one-third of those who saw heavy combat—about 500,000—suffer from what's called "posttraumatic stress syndrome." It can begin soon or many years after returning home. The symptoms include headaches, dizziness and stomach trouble—as well as depression, rage, nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks, panic and emotional numbing.

Is the problem restricted to former combat soldiers?

Generally, the more combat a man saw, the more likely he is to be affected still. But about one-quarter of the roughly 2.8 million Americans who served in Vietnam—regardless of combat exposure—exhibit clinical levels of stress. Some would have been stress-prone in any situation, but the unique Vietnamese experience has made their problems more difficult to solve. Even people of the most stable social background were affected if they were in the heavy fighting.

Is any group especially affected?

Those who served after 1968. Casualties, drug abuse and a sense of futility among the soldiers went up after that year when support at home went down. In our study, we found that combat did not produce delayed stress symptoms of any significance for soldiers who fought before 1968.

Are drug problems related to combat levels?

Yes. Combat is associated with elevated levels of drinking problems for whites and drug abuse problems for blacks. Also, we found that for the "pre-service" years, as we called them, nonveterans had a higher arrest rate than those who later went into the military. After discharge, however, combat veterans had a higher arrest rate than any other group. Fully 24 percent of veterans who saw heavy combat were later arrested for criminal offenses.

Do the veterans feel that America rejected not only the war but them as well?

Yes. For the first time in our history homecoming was as difficult as, if not more difficult than, the battle itself. For one thing, we lost, and that dramatically undermined the sense of purpose for a lot of guys. Mostly, though, they went overseas to face the most appalling horror imaginable and when they returned their service and sacrifice wasn't even acknowledged. Last year a guy I know heard I was a veteran and said, "By the way, that must have taken a lot of guts. Thanks for doing that." No one had ever said that to me before, it blew my mind.

How did you react when you yourself were discharged?

Since I had worked for Army intelligence in Saigon, I wore civilian clothes and led a relatively privileged existence, though the house I lived in was rocketed at one point, and I missed dying by a few yards. Then, too, I had a Washington desk job my last year in the service, which gave me time to readjust to the States. Even so, when I got out I'd cry often and feel troubled, depressed and guilty much of the time. Around women, I didn't feel anything. What ultimately kept me sane was letting the feelings run their course. There's a wonderful line Marlon Brando delivers in Apocalypse Now—"You have to make a friend of the horror." To me, it means that if I had tried to run from my feelings, I'd have remained a prisoner of them. Now I feel like a broken bone that has healed in a way that makes it more whole. I've been tremendously strengthened by those experiences.

Have most Vietnam veterans been able to do this?

Unfortunately, about half are walking around with troubling experiences still locked inside them. Many try to avoid memories, others become obsessed with them. Some pity or blame themselves, others blame outside forces like the government or war resisters. What's clear from our study is that the guys who are doing best are the ones who've done the most reflecting on what happened.

Should the federal government eliminate its Vietnam counseling centers?

No. It's important that they remain. The centers, run by and for Vietnam veterans, have become islands of trust. But the program is a token to begin with—91 outreach centers, three counselors per center. That's 273 people to service 2.8 million Vietnam veterans, not to mention the six million other Americans who did military service from 1964 to 1973 outside the war zone. The solution to the problem has to be much more widespread.

What would you prescribe?

The Veterans Administration has to refocus itself. The system is geared to medical problems and increasingly to geriatric care for veterans of earlier wars. The VA long ago developed expertise in treating physical injuries. Its general psychiatric service, however, is unrelated to the special needs of combat veterans. I went to a veterans' hospital in the Bronx in 1977 to do some preliminary interviews, and about half of one group I saw had been misdiagnosed—in my opinion—as schizophrenic or as having character disorders. There was no awareness that they might be having delayed stress reactions to what they'd been through.

What else can be done for the Vietnam veterans?

While many have been struggling under a host of psychological strains, their eligibility for GI Bill benefits has run out in most cases. Even though many veterans went back to school, an extension of GI Bill eligibility is sorely needed to help them become fully productive citizens now. But the government can't fill the gap totally. I'm waiting for some smart corporate executive to realize that veterans are a force that can be galvanized for leadership.

What do you mean?

If business would offer veterans more jobs—along with stress-reduction workshops, self-help groups and training seminars—they would become point men for better productivity and morale. Veterans are people who've been through basic training, who get a kick out of doing 50 pushups and running two miles before breakfast. Whether or not you approved of their politics at the time, they said yes when it was popular to say no. That spirit should be tapped.

There's been a lot of publicity lately about women in Vietnam. Were they affected?

Sure, those that were there. However, we're not talking about the same order of magnitude; we're talking about roughly 7,500 WACs and Army nurses versus 2.8 million Vietnam servicemen.

Were there special adaptation problems for the men?

In our research, we found that male veterans of heavy combat had significantly fewer stress-related symptoms if they had neighborhood friends who were veterans, or if they came back to continuing supportive relationships with women. But veterans who did not already have loving relationships found them difficult to establish.

Why?

When men come back from a war, they want the kind of things only a woman can provide. But post-Vietnam wasn't like it had been for Mom and Dad following WW II. Women's values were changing and they were no longer attracted to traditional male bravado. Also, a lot of guys found it hard to open up and let themselves feel for someone. You saw these things epitomized in the movie Coming Home.

What is the most important conclusion of your study?

Without a doubt, it's that the war remains unfinished business for an entire generation, not just for the men who fought it. We were repeatedly struck by how grateful nonveterans as well as veterans were for the chance to talk about the war years. There's still a lot of pain and untold stories out there.

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