For Some Vietnam Vets, Images From The Afghanistan Withdrawal Look Disturbingly Familiar

Some Vietnam veterans say the Afghanistan withdrawal has triggered symptoms of post-traumatic stress, while others are voicing frustration and powerlessness.

By Carson FrameAugust 23, 2021 9:57 am, , ,

In just a week, the Taliban took control of the Afghan government and are returning the country to a theocracy. Haunting images of Afghans overwhelming the Kabul airport — and hasty evacuations — dominated news coverage and social media.

For Russ Clark, a former Marine infantry officer who fought in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, the events in Afghanistan feel strikingly familiar. He remembers watching the news of the fall of Saigon.

“It’s almost identical to the scenes that I saw in 1975, evacuating from the rooftop of our embassy in Saigon,” Clark said. “It triggers a lot of those memories.”

The emotions are much the same, too, with a heavy dose of grief and confusion over what it all meant.

“The feeling is one of pain, futility, a sense of powerlessness — even embarrassment and deflation. All of those are part of what I’m dealing with right now,” he said.

Echoes of Vietnam aren’t just affecting Clark. Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, calls this an “acute crisis” for veterans of that era, many of whom were already facing service-related injuries.

“Before this withdrawal, we saw rising suicide rates among Vietnam veterans, because they’re at that age, and they’re suffering from those conditions. They’re experiencing loneliness and disconnectedness at levels that are obscene. And then you layer this on top of that and it amounts to a crisis,” Schwab said.

Schwab said he’s hearing from veterans who are consumed with television news and social media, which is a huge trigger for their PTSD, anxiety, and depression. He said many Vietnam veterans are dealing with an extra layer of stress, given the similarities between Afghanistan and the war they fought.

“Frankly, many of them predicted and warned that this might happen again,” he said. “Sure enough, they’re seeing that play out. For many of them, their worst fears have come true.”

It could, however, be an opportunity to work through past trauma, according to Cohen Veterans Network president and CEO Dr. Anthony Hassan.

“This may be another reminder to them of all that they’ve stuffed down and hidden away,” he said. “So this could be that time where those moments, emotions, feelings and regrets are reactivated….But hopefully this is a time for them to get the help that they need as well.”

In recent days, the Dole Foundation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Military Health System, and many other veteran-serving organizations have sent out email blasts offering support and mental health resources to veterans and their families. Advocates are urging veterans to disconnect from the news and connect with other people.

Courtesy of Russ Clark

Russ Clark during his tour of Vietnam, which lasted from 1969-1970, and in the present day.

Ron Harris served alongside Russ Clark in Vietnam as a Navy Medical Corpsman. He has some advice for younger vets who may be struggling now: get help.

“Don’t wait, get in there,” Harris said. “Talk with your friends, talk with those who were close to you during those times in Afghanistan and get help. Go get help. Get professional help or go to a support group. You know, when we came back from Vietnam, we didn’t really have that stuff.”

Harris said he feels irritable and angry because of what’s happening in Afghanistan. But he credits his wife and family with helping him stay positive and maintain a sense of stability — just as they did when he returned from Vietnam.

“For the good things that are in my life, I’m grateful,” he said before listing off some of the bright points. ‘I have four great children, eight grandchildren. We’re heavily involved and invested in family — and that helps.”

Harris said it took him years to come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam. He hopes that, with greater support networks, the after-effects of war will be easier for younger veterans to manage.

Some mental health providers share that hope, especially given that societal support for veterans has increased dramatically since the return of troops from Vietnam.

“I think a lot of parallels are being drawn between those two eras [Afghanistan and Vietnam], especially given all of the uncertainty with the drawdown and the consequences of that,” said Betsy Clark, local recovery coordinator and psychologist with the South Texas VA. “Because our community is more supportive of veterans, I’m hopeful that that will help promote some resilience and coping during this time.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting

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